Syria deployed tanks to fire on demonstrators in an extension of a crackdown on anti-government protests that has engulfed the country for almost two months, according to a Syrian human-rights group.
The death toll in two days has been at least 22, with 13 people in shelling of a village outside the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising began in mid-March, said Ammar Qurabi, the head of the National Organization for Human Rights. At least five people died in an assault on the central city of Homs and four in Jassem, Qurabi said in a phone interview.
In Homs, “tank shelling, the use of heavy weapons, machine guns and artillery started in the Bab Amro neighborhood at about 5 a.m., for two hours continuously before becoming sporadic,” Nitham al-Siraj, a human-rights activist based in the city, said by phone. “We can hear everything, but no one is allowed in the area.”
Today’s operations follow actions yesterday against demonstrators in the capital, Damascus, and flash-point cities including Daraa. The continuing suppression of protests in Syria and Yemen comes after revolts against longtime leaders in Egypt and Tunisia helped spread unrest through the Middle East.
The army said it is pursuing “terrorist elements” in the suburbs of Homs, has arrested “dozens” of wanted people there and confiscated arms and ammunition, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency. The latest confrontation led to injuries among soldiers and a number of dead and wounded among those the military was seeking, it said.
Deaths Exceed 750
Since the protests began in March, 757 demonstrators have been killed, Qurabi said by phone yesterday. As many as 10,000 may have been detained, according to his organization.
Tanks were also headed toward the city of Hama, near Homs, Mahmoud Merhi of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said in a phone interview from Syria today. Hama was the site of an Islamist-led uprising in 1982 that was crushed by President Bashar al-Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, leaving 10,000 people dead.
At least four people were killed and 20 wounded yesterday in the southern village of Jassem near Daraa, Merhi said. Jassem and the villages of Inkhil, Sanamein and Nawa are surrounded by tanks and army units, he said.
House-to-house searches were conducted and a “large number” of people were arrested yesterday, including men between the ages 18 and 70 in the Damascus district of al- Muadamiya, which had been encircled on May 9, and the suburb of Barzeh, Merhi said.
Gunfire was heard in al-Muadamiya early yesterday and 100 people were arrested on May 9 in the capital and its suburbs, Qurabi said. Security forces entered three villages outside Daraa, he said yesterday. The government said on May 5 that the army had begun a gradual retreat from Daraa, where the protests began in mid-March, after completing its mission by detaining “terrorist elements and restoring security and calm.”
The Syrian uprising drew initial pledges of reform from Assad, who lifted an emergency law in place since 1963 and appointed a new government. He hasn’t repeated the assurances in recent weeks as security forces have stepped up their attacks, sending tanks into Daraa and other cities.
Bouthaina Shaaban, a political adviser to the president, met with a number of activists and intellectuals, Aref Dalila, an economist and previously imprisoned dissident as well as Louay Hussein a writer and activist, said in telephone interviews.
‘Major Change’ Needed
“It wasn’t really a dialogue and we stressed that during the meeting as we haven’t been tasked to represent anyone,” Dalila said today. “A major change is needed in the country where there is an environment that sets the stage for open democratic participation, prisoners are released, personal freedoms are affirmed and people can take part in free elections that are monitored.”
Syria freed 300 detainees from the coastal city of Banias, Qurabi said. About 450 had been detained in the city since May 8, he had said. Hassan Abdel-Azim, a spokesman for the opposition Democratic National Group who was arrested on April 30 in Damascus, was released on May 9, while Malak al-Shanawani, a feminist activist, was arrested yesterday, Merhi said.
The Interior Ministry said 2,684 people “involved in riot acts” have turned themselves in following a government announcement that those who surrender between May 2 and May 15 will be exempt from prosecution and punishment, SANA reported today. It said they were released after they vowed not to repeat any act that harms the security of the state or its citizens.
Germany warned Syria today that the European Union will implement an additional round of sanctions that could directly affect Assad unless his government “immediately and discernibly stops its aggression.”
Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s first cousin, linked Israel’s stability to Syria’s, the New York Times reported yesterday. Syria’s ruling elite will fight to the end, he told the newspaper. Makhlouf is one of 13 Syrian officials targeted by EU sanctions that include a visa ban and an asset freeze.
The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Syrian officials because of the violent crackdown. Syria will probably drop its bid for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council under pressure from countries that condemn its repression of protesters, Egypt’s UN Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz said in an interview yesterday.
‘Heed the Calls’
“I urge again President Assad to heed the calls of the people for reform and freedom and to desist from excessive force,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at a press conference in Geneva today.
“I am disappointed that our humanitarian assessment team has not yet been given the access it needs as was promised,” Ban said, adding that he urged Syria to cooperate with the human rights mandated commission.
Assad agreed to let the team visit to check on humanitarian needs in Daraa, during a May 4 telephone call, according to UN spokesman Farhan Haq.
Syria decided to widen the scope of investigations into killings in Daraa and Latakia to include the rest of the country, SANA said today. Syria’s council of ministers formed a committee to prepare a new draft law for general elections and submit its findings within two weeks, the government agency reported.
Most foreign journalists have been banned from Syria and the government has restricted media access to protest flash points and made it more difficult to get visas.
To contact the reporter on this story: Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut at firstname.lastname@example.org
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