Syria sends more troops to rebel town

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The Independent Online

The Syrian government dispatched more army reinforcements to the southern town of Deraa yesterday as its all-out assault with tanks and other heavy weaponry prompted the EU to say it would consider "all options" in its attempts to rein in the regime.

Five European nations also summoned Syrian ambassadors to condemn the deadly violence against protesters, and EU diplomats will meet tomorrow to decide whether to impose sanctions on Syria as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad continues its siege of the city at the heart of a month-long uprising. Witnesses also reported seeing tanks on the outskirts of the capital Damascus and in the coastal city of Baniyas yesterday.

Activists said food and water in Deraa were running short, while heavy gunfire continued to echo around the streets. Mosques were reportedly using loudspeakers to make appeals to the military to stop killing civilians. Schools in the city have been shelled by artillery, according to one Beirut-based activist, while there are also shortages of blood at hospitals in the area. Dozens of people have been killed over the past 48 hours, he said. One video posted on the internet purported to show tank reinforcements being ferried south to Deraa on a convoy of flatbed trucks, though it not possible to verify the footage.

Rights campaigners say security forces have killed at least 400 people since civil unrest began to sweep the country in March, with 25 dying during an army assault on Deraa on Monday alone. Military cordons are also in place around other cities throughout the country, including Homs, Hama and the restive north-western city of Baniyas, where residents have reported armed civilian gangs and security forces amassing in the surrounding hills.

Hundreds of people have also been detained after nationwide house-to-house raids.

In Douma, a suburb of Damascus, one activist told the Independent that security forces were positioned on rooftops and scores of plain-clothed secret police were prowling round the streets,

"People around here are very scared," said the middle-aged man, who did not want to be named. "They are afraid to go outside and are scared for their lives."

Another activist, from small town outside the capital, said that the atmosphere had changed considerably since the nationwide demonstrations demanding reform erupted on Friday. "Where ever you go in my town, a common feeling is that everybody is frustrated and afraid of being arrested," he said. "Most people have fled their houses and are sleeping in different places, including me."

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 500 people have been arrested during the sweeping security crackdown which followed last weekend's protests. One human rights researcher based in Damascus said that dozens of those seized during the raids had been tortured.

Officials from France, Britain, Germany and Portugal yesterday circulated a draft statement to the UN Security Council condemning the deadly violence against protesters. France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain have also summoned Syrian ambassadors over the crackdown.

Asked about the meeting tomorrow, a spokesman for the EU executive said "all options are on the table", although analysts say military action similar to the Nato assault on Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya is unlikely.

Amnesty International has called for the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. The organisation's leader, Salil Shetty, said: "The Security Council needs now to step up to the mark and show leadership on Syria as it did on Libya. A consistent policy of zero-tolerance for crimes against humanity will send a signal to all governments that impunity for crimes under international law is no longer acceptable."

The Syrian envoy to the UN said that his country had "nothing to hide". The regime of President Bashar al-Assad continues to say that the military is targeting only "armed groups".

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