EU says 'all options on the table' to quell Syria violence

Food, water scarce in Deraa as tanks, troops launch offensive; US calls violence "abhorrent and deplorable"; rights group says 453 civilians killed.

Syria protest flag 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
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 bullets.
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 unarmed demonstrators.
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 city.
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.