Syria sends tanks into Deraa where uprising began

AMMAN Mon Apr 25, 2011 5:46pm EDT

1 of 10. Protesters run for cover after shots were fired during a protest in Damascus in this still image taken from an amateur video footage uploaded to social networking websites on April 23, 2011. Reuters is unable to independently verify the content of this video, which has been obtained from a social media website.

Credit: Reuters/Social Media Website via REUTERS TV

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AMMAN (Reuters) - 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 al-Assad first erupted.

A prominent activist said at least 18 people were killed in the first reported use of tanks inside a population center since peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations began in the southern city, close to the border with Jordan, on March 18.

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."

A U.S. official said that measures under consideration included a freeze on assets and a ban on U.S. business dealings.

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.

A leading human rights campaigner said security forces, which also swept into the restive Damascus suburbs of Douma and Mouadhamiya, shooting and making arrests, were waging "a savage war designed to annihilate Syria's democrats."

Monday's raids suggested Assad, who assumed power when his father died in 2000 after ruling Syria with an iron fist for 30 years, was determined to crush the opposition by force.

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.

State news agency SANA said the army entered Deraa in response to "appeals for help" from residents and to protect them from "extremist terrorist groups." It said clashes had led to fatalities on both sides, without giving details.

TANKS OUTSIDE MOSQUE

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 at random 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 named Mohsen told Al Jazeera, which showed images of a black cloud of smoke over buildings. "People can't move from one street to another because of the shelling."

Abdallah Abazaid, another activist, told Al Arabiya television there were "20 martyrs," and that five officers and 10 soldiers refused orders to shoot residents.

"They have quit their positions because they found us unarmed," Abazaid said. His comments about army defections could not be confirmed but another witness told Al Jazeera that a unit commander and his troops fired on their own side, apparently to allow people to drag the wounded from the street.

"I hope that Arab and Muslim nations support the Syrian people. The Syrian people are standing alone, unarmed and unequipped, before an arsenal," the imam of Deraa's Omari mosque said in footage broadcast by Al Jazeera.

Foreign journalists have mostly been expelled from the country, making it impossible to verify the situation on the ground. Grisly footage posted on the Internet by demonstrators in recent days appears to show troops firing on unarmed crowds.

"OUTRAGEOUS VIOLENCE"

Assad has deepened his father Hafez al-Assad's alliance with Iran, clawed back influence in Lebanon and backed Hezbollah and Hamas militants, but he has kept Syria's front line with Israel quiet and held indirect peace talks with the Jewish state.

Western criticism of the crackdown was initially muted, partly because of fears that a collapse of his minority Alawite rule in the majority Sunni country might lead to sectarian conflict. But on Friday Obama urged Assad to stop the "outrageous use of violence to quell protests."

Suhair al-Atassi, a leading Syrian human rights campaigner, said authorities had launched "a savage war designed to annihilate Syria's democrats."

"President Assad's intentions have been clear since he came out publicly saying he is 'prepared for war'," Atassi said, referring to a March 30 speech to parliament.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay 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."

At the United Nations, Britain, France, Germany and Portugal asked the Security Council to condemn the crackdown and urge restraint by the government, council diplomats said, but it was unclear whether Russia and China would support the idea.

(Additional reporting by Sami Aboudi and Miral Fahmy in Cairo, Mahmoud Habboush in Dubai, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

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Comments (13)
wade wrote:
President Assad–They are comming for you!Cat is out of the bag Dude-your own people are comming for you.The people can not turn back now–things have changed, they will never be the same. They are comming–!

Apr 24, 2011 9:41pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
JiJi99 wrote:
Shame on you Reuters for using the term “Sunni district!” This divisive and sectarian-fueling language is completely unacceptable to us Syrians! Moreover, this article is a gross misrepresentation of what is REALLY going on in Syria. While most of the demonstrators have valid demands, some of them are hooligans, others are armed and dangerous. The security forces themselves are incurring serious causalities. While these forces can be heavy-handed at times, most Syrians realize they are needed to maintain a much needed measure of safety. In the past few years, Syria has been plagued by a rising number of crimes committed by armed bandits. This is in large part due to the region’s instability and mounting poverty, but also the progressive loosening of the security forces’ “iron hold.” Unlike you, and some so called “dissidents” in their digital ivory towers, Syrians on the ground will ultimately pay the price should the situation deteriorate further. If you could read Arabic, you’d see for yourself that some of the hooligans (on Facebook for instance) are calling for revenge, and the spilling of blood, even the killing of children, to avenge their suffering. If things were really as you suggest, you’d see tens of thousands of the 23 or so million Syrian citizens in the streets, demonstrating. Why do you think this isn’t happening? Furthermore, given Syria’s secular society, where are the women in this revolution?

Apr 24, 2011 11:06pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
TonyG76 wrote:
Since the dawn of Christianity, Christians lived in the Middle East, the original place from which the prophets and Christ himself came.

The Assad regime, which is brutal, repressive, and backwards, is however based on a secular system, the Baath ideology. A secular system, such as the Baath regime, ensures the protection of such minorities as the Christians and Shias in countries like Syria and Lebanon. The Iraqi Baath protected the Christians. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Christians were targeted by Muslim extremists. The number of Iraqi Christians is now negligible.

The Arab countries have a Sunni majority. The Sunnis in Lebanon are already well financed by Saudi Arabia to create a Sunni Muslim state out of what was once Christian Lebanon. The Sunnis in Syria are the majority amounting to 74% of the total population. Since Syria has always played a significant role in Lebanese politics due to the country’s geography and the history of the political system, the fall of the Assad regime and its overtake by a Wahabi Saudi-backed Sunni regime would mean that minorities such as Christians and Shia Muslims would become 10th class citizens. This would lead to an even higher immigration rate from the Christian side, leaving the Levant, which was once the home of Christianity, without any Christians. This would be indeed unprecedented in human history.

Apr 24, 2011 11:22pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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