Syrian troops and tanks poured into Deraa on Monday, seeking to crush resistance in the city where a month-long uprising against the autocratic 11-year rule of President Bashar Assad first erupted.
A prominent activist said at least 18 people were killed, as roughly eight tanks were deployed in the city since peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations began there – close to the border with Jordan – on March 18. Artillery and mortar fire were also reported.
Amateur video showed soldiers and tanks deployed on the outskirts of Deraa early on Monday. In one clip, residents are heard saying of the troops, “Instead of fighting on the Golan, they’re fighting their own people.”
Syrian government officials accused Deraa residents of wishing their region to be annexed to Israel, Channel 2 reported.
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 to make clear that “this behavior is unacceptable.”
The measures – which could freeze Syrian officials’ assets and ban them from doing business in the United States – would likely come in the form of an executive order signed by Obama, an American official said.
But a final decision has yet to be made on the exact timing of such a move, and there was no immediate word whether Assad might be among those targeted for sanctions, as human rights groups have urged.
“The brutal violence used by the government of Syria against its people is completely deplorable,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said on Monday.
“The United States is pursuing a range of possible policy options, including targeted sanctions, to respond to the crackdown and make clear that this behavior is unacceptable,” he said. “The Syrian people’s call for freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and the ability to freely choose their leaders must be heard.”
Security forces have killed more than 350 civilians across Syria since unrest broke out in Deraa, rights groups say. A third of the victims were shot in the past three days as the scale and breadth of a popular revolt against Assad grew.
Assad lifted Syria’s 48-year state of emergency on Thursday, but activists say the violence the following day – when 100 people were killed during protests across the country – showed he was not serious about addressing calls for political freedom.
Opposition activist Ammar Qurabi, in contact with the Syrian opposition from Egypt, said at least 18 people were killed by gunfire and tank shelling in Deraa alone, with many more wounded or missing. A raid was also conducted in the Damascus suburb of Douma.
Earlier, a witness in Deraa told Reuters he could see bodies lying in a main street near the Omari mosque after eight tanks and two armored vehicles were deployed in the old quarter. “People are taking cover in homes. I could see two bodies near the mosque, and no one was able to go out and drag them away,” the witness said.
Snipers were posted on government buildings, and security forces in army fatigues had shot randomly at houses since the tanks moved in just after dawn prayers, the witness said.
Tanks at the main entry points to Deraa also shelled targets in the city, a resident told Al-Jazeera, which showed a cloud of black smoke hanging over buildings. “People can’t move from one street to another because of the shelling,” the resident said.
The state-run SANA news agency reported on Monday, “In response to the calls for help from the citizens of Deraa and their appeal to the armed forces to intervene and put an end to the operations of killings, vandalism and horrifying [sic] by extremist terrorist groups,” troops had entered the city “to restore tranquility, security and normal life to citizens.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops and gunmen loyal to Assad had also shot dead at least 13 civilians since they swept into the Mediterranean town of Jabla on Sunday. The forces deployed in the old Sunni quarter of Jabla after a prodemocracy protest and a warning by the governor of the province against any public assembly, the activists said.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay denounced the escalation of violence and called for detained activists and political prisoners to be released.
“The first step now is to immediately halt the use of violence, then to conduct a full and independent investigation into the killings, including the alleged killing of military and security officers, and to bring the perpetrators to justice,” she said.
Britain, France, Germany and Portugal are asking the UN Security Council to condemn Syria’s crackdown and urge restraint by the government, council diplomats said on Monday. But it was unclear whether Russia and China would support the idea.
The two permanent veto-wielding council members have become increasingly critical of the UN-backed intervention to protect civilians in Libya, which UN diplomats say Moscow and Beijing worry aims at ousting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Officials in Jordan said Syria closed all land border crossings between
the two countries on Monday, cutting a major transit point for freight
between Turkey and Europe, and the Persian Gulf.
Ayoub Kara, a Likud MK and deputy minister for the development of the
Negev and the Galilee, said on Monday that he organized a meeting in
Vienna on Tuesday between members of Syria’s opposition and senior
European mediators with links to Damascus.
The meeting will encourage “mediation and cooperation between the
[Syrian] regime and opposition that will help bring calm, and
ultimately, the end of the unrest,” Kara said.
He added that the discussion would be aimed at “preventing a Muslim
Brotherhood takeover of Syria,” but did not provide further details.Jonah Mandel contributed to this report.