Sept. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Syrian forces killed at least 12 protesters and surrounded restive areas, an activist said, as President Bashar al-Assad’s government intensified its crackdown on dissent this week.
Yesterday’s killings brought the death toll to at least 87 from five days of violence directed at demonstrators, said Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights. The attacks, which also left many wounded, took place in the central governorate of Homs, the eastern town of Deir al-Zour and the northern province of Idlib, he said by phone.
The start of the academic year may have prompted the government to escalate the violence to warn young Syrians not to use schools as places to plan protests, Chris Phillips, a London-based analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in a telephone interview today. “Young people have also been an important component of this rebellion against Assad’s rule and at the beginning of the school year they’re likely to be more fired up and go out onto the streets,” he said.
Assad, who inherited power from his father 11 years ago, faces the biggest challenge to his rule as international pressure to end the violence increases. The protests that began in mid-March are part of the wave of unrest across the Middle East and North Africa that unseated Tunisia’s leader in January, Egypt’s president in February and ousted Muammar Qaddafi’s government from the capital, Tripoli, last month.
Qaddafi’s defeat at the hands of rebels may also have energized Syrian demonstrators, prompting Assad’s government to hit back, Phillips said.
“Every time one regime falls it gives some kind of a psychological boost to the protesters,” he said. Though each country in the region is different, the unseating of a leader “makes protesters in Syria believe they can succeed.”
Assad’s forces began nighttime sweeps for protesters yesterday, leading to many arrests, Merhi said. They targeted restive areas, surrounding Kisweh, a suburb of the capital, Damascus, and Zabadani, a town near the border with Lebanon, he said.
This year’s crackdown on dissent in Syria has left more than 3,600 civilians dead, according to Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. About 30,000 people have been detained and 13,000 are still being held, according to estimates from Qurabi and Merhi.
The economy will contract 2 percent this year, the International Monetary Fund said today in its updated World Economic Outlook. In April, it had forecast 3 percent growth for the country.
Syrian Finance Minister Mohammad Al-Jleilati said in a Sept. 7 interview that the economy will expand 1 percent this year, down from 5.5 percent growth in 2010.
U.S. and European leaders imposed sanctions, including bans on oil exports, and urged Assad to cede power. The government has called the unrest foreign-backed terrorism.
A 25-kilogram (55-pound) explosive device placed under a pipeline near Syria’s Homs oil refinery was defused, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported today. The government blamed “saboteurs” for the attempted attack, SANA said.
The International Energy Agency estimates that Syria exported about 157,000 barrels of oil last year and about 127,000 barrels a day in the first quarter to European members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
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