REUTERS - European governments urged Syria on Tuesday to end violence after President Bashar al-Assad sent tanks to crush a revolt in the city of Deraa where witnesses said the army was firing randomly and bodies lie on the streets.
In Deraa, where the uprising against Assad’s rule first erupted, residents said an army brigade led by Assad’s younger brother Maher had cut off roads with tanks, were shelling homes, storming houses and rounding up people.
International criticism of Assad’s crackdown, now in its sixth week, was initially muted but escalated after the death of 100 protesters on Friday and Assad’s decision to storm Deraa, which echoed his father’s 1982 suppression of Islamists in Hama.
“We send a strong call to Damascus authorities to stop the violent repression of what are peaceful demonstrations,” Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said at a joint news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Rome.
More than 2,000 security police deployed in the Damascus suburb of Douma on Tuesday, manning road blocks and checking the identity of residents, a witness told Reuters.
The witness said he saw several dark green trucks in the streets equipped with heavy machineguns. He said men who he believed were members of the plain clothes secret police were carrying assault rifles.
In the coastal city of Banias, forces also braced for a possible attack as protesters chanted “the people want the overthrow of the regime”, said a human rights activist.
Residents in Deraa reached by telephone said clouds of black smoke were rising from every section of the city and that heavy artillery and Kalashnikov rounds were heard from the Old City.
“In the street I am in there are around 10 tanks. Their aim is just to destroy and destroy ... They are shelling homes and demolishing them,” said Abu Khaldoun.
“Maher al-Assad’s forces have spread everywhere and with their roadblocks Deraa has become a big prison. You cannot go out without endangering your life,” said his cousin, Abu Tamer.
“They are breaking into homes... They are rounding up dozens of people and arresting them ... They haven’t left a house they have not entered into,” he said, adding: “Wherever you go there are tanks. It’s been two days and the shooting has not stopped.”
Residents said it was not clear how many people had been killed since the army pushed into Deraa on Monday and that they were not allowed to get to the bodies that lie in the streets.
“They are not allowing us to gather or to go out to fetch food or medicine,” he said. Residents said the forces deployed snipers in the city including on rooftops.
Force not reforms
Washington said on Monday it was studying targeted sanctions against Syria and Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal on Tuesday proposed the European Union suspend aid to Damascus and impose an arms embargo and sanctions against its leaders.
In Turkey, Syrian opposition figures pleaded for international help.
“Our friends in the West, in Turkey, in the Arab world, if they want to help us, then they can do that by... putting the clearest possible pressure on the Syrian regime to stop targeting civilians,” Anas Abdah, the British-based chairman of the Movement for Justice and Development, told Reuters.
Abdah said he had reports that some officers were defying orders and trying to stop Assad loyalists from entering Deraa.
Security forces have shot dead 400 civilians in a campaign to crush the uprising against Assad’s 11-year rule, Syrian human rights organisation Sawasiah said on Tuesday. Another 500 people had been arrested in the last two days, it said.
Activists said the military move showed Assad had decided on force, not reforms, to deal with protests inspired by Arab uprisings which toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.
Ali Al Atassi, an activist whose father was jailed for 22 years under Hafez al-Assad, said “another Hama” was impossible, referring to the 1982 crackdown which killed some 30,000.
“This regime doesn’t understand that the world has changed, that the Arab region has changed and that the Syrian people has changed. They are still locked in the past and those who don’t change at the right moment, they will be forced to change.”
Last week Assad lifted Syria’s 48-year state of emergency and abolished a hated state security court. But the next day 100 people were killed during protests across the country.
Despite deepening his father’s alliance with Iran, clawing back influence in Lebanon and backing militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, Assad has kept Syria’s front line with Israel quiet and held indirect peace talks with the Jewish state.
Muted Arab reaction
Criticism of his crackdown was restrained at first, partly because of fears that a collapse of Assad’s minority Alawite rule might lead to sectarian conflict in the majority Sunni state, and because Washington had hoped to loosen Syria’s alliance with Iran and promote a peace deal with Israel.
Arab states, some of them putting down protests on their own soil, also refrained from criticising Assad, though the 22-member Arab League said on Tuesday pro-democracy demonstrators across the region “deserve support, not bullets”.
Amnesty International, citing sources in Deraa, said at least 23 people were killed when tanks shelled Deraa on Monday in what it called “a brutal reaction to people’s demands”.
A local resident said in the Sabeel neighbourhood a demonstration of around 300 youths was allowed to go ahead. Soldiers near to a tank deployed close by put down their light arms to signify they would not shoot, he said.
Telephone lines, electricity and water supplies have all been cut, residents said. Majed al-Hourani, speaking by satellite phone to Reuters, said there were bursts of machinegun fire and artillery rounds in the city.
The White House, deploring “brutal violence used by the government of Syria against its people”, said President Barack Obama’s administration was considering targeted sanctions.
Syria has been under U.S. sanctions since 2004 for its support of militant groups. Several Syrian officials, among them Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, a tycoon, are under specific U.S. sanctions for “public corruption”.