Syria protest flag 311.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
AMMAN - Syrian troops tightened control on Wednesday over flashpoints of protest against Syrian President Bashar Assad, who faced growing international calls to end violence that a rights group said had killed over 450 people.
Tanks patrolled the southern city of Deraa, where the uprising against Assad erupted nearly six weeks ago, troops poured overnight into the Damascus suburb of Douma and security forces surrounded the restive coastal city of Banias.
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Germany said on Wednesday it strongly supported European Union sanctions against the Syrian leadership, and the bloc's executive body, the European Commission, said all options were on the table for punitive measures against Damascus.
France summoned Syria's ambassador to protest at the violence and said
Britain, Spain, Germany and Italy were doing the same. "Syrian
authorities must meet the legitimate demands of their people with
reforms, and not through the use of force," French Foreign Ministry
spokesman Bernard Valero said.
The United States, which imposed a limited economic embargo against
Syria in 2004, says it is considering further targeted sanctions in
response to the "abhorrent and deplorable" violence by security forces
deployed in the crackdown on protesters.
A witness told Reuters that a convoy of at least 30 army tanks headed
early on Wednesday from southwest of Damascus, near the Golan Heights,
in a direction which could take them either to Douma or to Deraa.
Overnight, white buses had brought hundreds of soldiers in full combat
gear into Douma, from where protesters have tried to march into the
center of the capital in the last two weeks, only to be stopped by
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had names of at least
453 civilians killed during the protests across the country against
Assad's 11-year authoritarian rule.
A resident in Deraa, where electricity, water and phone lines were cut
when the army rolled in at dawn on Monday, said fresh food was running
out and grocery stores were giving away their produce. "It's mostly
tinned food they are distributing to us," he said by telephone.
A relative said his neighbor saw a tank driving over the body of a young man in the main Tishrin square on Tuesday.
"They are telling us: 'You have to accept us and we will remain forever
your rulers, whether you like it or not. And if you resist us, this is
your fate'," he said.
He said the army push into Deraa was also a warning to other cities of
what they could expect if protests continued. "But God willing, we are
steadfast and this only strengthens our resolve to get rid of them --
not tomorrow, today," he added.
Diplomats said the unit Assad sent into Deraa on Monday was the
ultra-loyal Fourth Mechanized Division, commanded by his brother Maher.
Reports from opposition figures and some Deraa residents, which could
not be confirmed, said that some soldiers from another unit had refused
to fire on civilians.
Syria has blamed armed groups for the violence. Protesters say their
rallies have been peaceful and security forces have opened fire on
State television broadcast what it said were confessions of a Deraa
resident, who said he was offered money and weapons to join the
protests. It also said an "extremist terrorist group" was arrested in
the coastal city of Jabla, where rights groups say at least 13 people
were killed on Sunday.
International criticism of Assad's response to the protests was
initially muted but sharpened 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.
His attempts to appease discontent by lifting emergency law, while
keeping draconian powers of the secret police and the Baath Party's
monopoly on power, have not stopped protests.
But Assad, a member of Syria's Alawite minority, retains some support,
especially among co-religionists who dominate the army and secret police
and could lose preferential treatment if majority Sunni Syria was to
transform into a democracy.
An alliance between the ruling minority and the Sunni merchant class,
forged by the elder Assad through a blend of coercion and the granting
of privileges, still holds, robbing protesters of financial backing and a
foothold in the old bazaars of Damascus and Aleppo, Syria's second
Demonstrators' demands, however, have hardened into calling for Assad's
overthrow. They have chided the president for sending forces to shoot at
his own people rather than "liberating" the Golan Heights.
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