Gunfire echoes around Syria’s besieged Deraa; 25 killed

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Gunfire echoes around Syria’s besieged Deraa; 25 killed

AMMAN - - Gunfire and artillery echoed early on Tuesday around the besieged city of Deraa, the heart of Syria’s month-long uprising, as civilians sought refuge indoors from tanks and snipers on the streets, a resident said.

By Suleiman Al-khalidi (Reuters)

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Published: Tue 26 Apr 2011, 4:44 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 2:13 AM

President Bashar al-Assad, facing a nationwide challenge to his 11-year autocratic rule, sent the army into Deraa and two restive suburbs of Damascus on Monday to crush protesters, killing 25 people according to a prominent Syrian rights group.

Assad’s use of force was condemned by the United States, but Western countries which launched air strikes against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi have taken no action against the Syrian leader.

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, and because Washington had hoped to loosen Syria’s alliance with Iran and move it towards a peace deal with Israel.

Arab states, quick to criticise Gaddafi’s repression of Libyan rebels, have similar concerns and also remained silent as the death toll in more than five weeks of Syrian unrest rose to over 350. Some are also putting down pro-reform protests on their own soil.

Syrian rights organisation Sawasiah said on Tuesday security forces had arrested 500 pro-democracy sympathisers across Syria after tanks rolled into Deraa. It said 20 people were killed in the southern city and two others in Douma, one of the Damascus suburbs stormed by security forces on Monday.

Amnesty international, citing sources in Deraa, said at least 23 people were killed when tanks shelled Deraa in what it called “a brutal reaction to people’s demands”.

Last week Assad lifted Syria’s 48-year state of emergency and abolished a hated state security court. But the next day 100 people were killed during protests across the country.

Activists say Friday’s violence and the storming of Deraa on Monday showed Assad had decided on force, not reforms, to deal with the protests, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world which toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

“The regime has chosen to use excessive violence. It worked in 1982, but there is no guarantee it will work again in the age of the Internet and phone cameras,” said a diplomat referring to Hafez al-Assad’s Hama crackdown which killed up to 30,000.

Ali Al Atassi, a prominent activist whose father was jailed for 22 years under Hafez al-Assad, said “another Hama” was not possible.

“Then the world did not see a single image of a dead body but yesterday all the pictures were posted online only a few hours after the tanks pushed into Deraa.

“This regime doesn’t understand that the world has changed, that the Arab region has changed and that the Syrian people has changed. They are still locked in the past and those who don’t change at the right moment, they will be forced to change.”

GUNFIRE, ARTILLERY IN DERAA

People in Deraa say telephone lines, electricy and water supplies have all been cut. One resident, speaking by satellite phone to Reuters, said there had been intermittent gunfire during the night followed by artillery rounds and intense machinegun fire at around 7.30 (0430 GMT).

“Sometimes you suddenly hear a burst of heavy machinegun fire coming in all directions as though to just scare people and terrify them,” he said.

He said citizens were cut off not just from the outside world but from other parts of Deraa.

“A brother doesn’t know what’s happening to his brother and we are still besieged,” he said. “They have cut off the city’s inner neighbourhoods from each other and army and snipers are still encircling almost every quarter.”

But he said in the Sabeel neighbourhood a demonstration of around 300 youths was allowed to go ahead. Soldiers near to a tank deployed close by put down their light arms down to signify they would not shoot, he said.

But residents believed that snipers were still active in the city.

“They don’t want people to bury their dead,” he said, adding that with electricity cut off mosques could not announce the names of the dead.

Government forces also stormed the Damascus suburbs of Douma and Mouadhamiya on Monday, shooting and making arrests, a day after they swept into the coastal town of Jabla, where at least 13 civilians were killed, rights campaigners said.

Diplomats said the figures for civilians killed could be as high as 50 in Deraa and 12 in Mouadhamiya, which lies on the road to the occupied Golan Heights southwest of Damascus.

Footage posted on the Internet by demonstrators in recent days appears to show troops firing on unarmed crowds. In the Damascus suburb of Barzeh residents described security forces firing at unarmed protesters from a heavy machinegun mounted on a truck.

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 behaviour is unacceptable”.

Syria has already been under U.S. sanctions since 2004 for its support of militant groups. Several Syrian officials, among them Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, a tycoon, are under specific U.S. sanctions for “public corruption”.

Britain said on Tuesday it was working with its allies on possible further measures against Syria and called on Assad to stop attacks on anti-goverment protesters.



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