Syrian tanks enter Homs, southern towns

Machine gun fire is heard throughout the city of 1 million; rights groups say at least 800 civilians killed in seven-week uprising.

Syria bread protest Banias 311 R (photo credit: Reuters)
Syria bread protest Banias 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian forces stormed three neighborhoods in the central city of Homs and tanks swept into several southern towns on Sunday, in a campaign to crush an uprising against autocratic Ba’athist rule.
In the first incursion into residential areas in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city with 1 million people, machine gun fire and shelling was heard across the city, residents told Reuters.
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At least one civilian, a 12- year-old child, was killed when tanks and troops charged into the Bab Sebaa, Bab Amro and Tal al-Sour districts of Homs overnight, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“The areas have been under total siege since yesterday. There is a total blackout on the numbers of dead and injured, Telecommunications and electricity are repeatedly being cut with the districts,” the observatory said in a statement.
A human rights campaigner in Homs said by telephone, “There are reports of [more] deaths, but they cannot be confirmed. I cannot get out of my house. Security forces are everywhere.”
A human rights group said security forces have killed at least 800 civilians in the seven-week-old uprising. Until the uprising began in mid-March, Assad – from the minority heterodox Alawite sect – had been emerging from Western isolation after defying the United States over Iraq and reinforcing ties with Iran to the concern of Syrian Sunnis.
Prof. John Myhill of the University of Haifa said foreign media tend to miss the religious undertones of the Syria uprising.
“Religion is a very, very large part of it,” he said.
“In the coastal areas where Alawites are the majority, the army is simply arming Alawites who aren’t even in the military. They’re giving them weapons and saying, ‘Go out and kill Sunnis.’ The Sunnis can’t be missing this.
“The government is not going to give up, no matter what. It’ll hold on no matter what, far longer than Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, because it’s not just the Assad family [at risk]. If the regime falls, there’s going to be genocide against the Alawites,” said Myhill, an expert on the intersection of religion and politics and author of the monograph “Language, Religion and Emerging Nationalisms in the Arab World.”
“It’s going to be like Iraq, except they’re outnumbered six to 1, and no one is going to be able to help them except maybe Hezbollah. People from the outside don’t evidently realize this,” he said.
“It’s clear this isn’t fun and games, or just camping out in the square as it was in Egypt. This is a matter of life and death.”
On Sunday, tanks moved into the towns of Tafas, Dael and Ibtaa in the Hauran Plain. Residents said they heard gunfire and that army forces broke into houses to arrest youths.
The three towns have a combined population of around 80,000 people.
The army intensified its presence across the Hauran region, having partly pulled out of Deraa last week and redeployed in nearby rural towns, witnesses said.
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Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
“We knew they would not forgive us for our solidarity with Deraa. They are also targeting Tafas because it is harboring lots of the youths who escaped the attack on Deraa,” one of the residents of Tafas said.
Tens of thousands of villagers from the Hauran region converged on Tafas on Friday and chanted slogans demanding Assad’s overthrow.
Prevented from entering Deraa, still encircled by tanks after nearly two weeks, they staged one of the largest demonstrations in Hauran, despite the heavy security presence in the plain, witnesses said.
In Banias on the Mediterranean coast, where human rights campaigners said Syrian forces shot dead six civilians in an attack on Sunni districts on Saturday, mass arrests continued, rights activists said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 200 more people have been arrested in Banias by soldiers in raids on houses in the city, including a 10- year-old child.
A Western diplomat has said 7,000 people in all had been arrested in security sweeps since mid- March.
The United States, reacting to the death of 27 protesters on Friday, threatened to take new steps against Syria’s Alawite rulers. Washington imposed more targeted sanctions on Syrian officials but excluded President Bashar Assad himself.
The European Union later imposed similar sanctions.