Syria takes the fight to heart of the rebellion

Khalid Ali reports from Damascus on the country's escalating crisis
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The Independent Online

The crisis enveloping Syria deepened yesterday when the army sent tanks rolling into the southern city of Deraa to crush one of the main centres of the nationwide rebellion, with at least 18 more people feared to have been killed in the violence.

The move was a serious escalation of force by the government, which had until this point refrained from using heavy weaponry against pro-reform demonstrators. Washington condemned the escalation and the spectre of sanctions against the regime loomed.

More raids were also reported in the Damascus suburb of Douma yesterday, with security services sweeping through the area in the early hours of the morning and making scores of arrests. Posts on a Facebook page monitoring the uprising said shots were fired during the raid and hundreds of people had been arrested.

In Deraa, which was the first Syrian city to be hit by anti-government protests last month, satellite television broadcast grainy mobile phone footage of troops squatting in fields as tanks ground through the streets. Witnesses spoke of seeing bodies lying in the roads as up to 5,000 troops poured into the town. One activist told the Associated Press that at least 18 people were killed.

Tanks surrounded the Omari mosque in the city's old quarters while soldiers took positions on rooftops. "The regime has sent tanks into Deraa to finish off the situation," one human rights activist told The Independent. "What will happen now I don't know. This is a very dangerous step."

Al Jazeera reported a witness saying that tanks on the outskirts of Deraa had shelled targets in the city. "People can't move from one street to another because of the shelling," the witness said.

There were also unconfirmed reports that army units involved in the Deraa operation had mutinied and were trying to protect civilians.

In a reflection of the deepening anxiety being felt by many Syrians across the country, the veteran human rights campaigner Haitham Maleh went into hiding last night after being informed that the security services were coming to arrest him.

"I was told by my son I had to leave," the 80-year-old activist said. "Someone had spoken to him and he told me that I had to get out of my house immediately because something was going to happen." Mr Maleh, who spent years campaigning for an end to Syria's decades-old emergency law, was only recently released from prison in March after serving part of a three-year sentence for "spreading false information" and "damaging national morale".

The crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad comes after his decision last week to lift the hated 48-year-old state-of-emergency law, which many activists blame for years of human rights abuses. But the raids on Deraa and Douma yesterday suggest that the Syrian regime is determined to go on the offensive and crush the uprising. More than 350 people are believed to have been killed since the anti-government protests erupted last month.

Referring to the recent violence, one senior diplomatic source based in Damascus said events over the past few days marked a "step-change" in the Syrian uprising.

"There are some ways to de-escalation but it doesn't look like the most probable route now," he said. "It's difficult to see the violence stopping unless the government can find some way back to the political track."

He added that Mr Assad's regime would probably now use its security forces to ensure that "fear becomes the biggest factor" in the minds of activists.

In Washington, the National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said sanctions against the regime were being considered: "The brutal violence used by the government of Syria against its people is completely deplorable and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms."

Writing about wrongs

Some 102 Syrian writers, intellectuals and activists have written an open letter in which they "condemn the violent, oppressive practices of the Syrian regime against the protesters and mourn the martyrs of the uprising". The signatories include: Samar Yazbek: Yazbek is a former editor of online magazine Women of Syria. Mohammad Ali al-Attassi: A Syrian journalist and human rights activist who writes for the Lebanese paper An Nahar. Loay Hussein: An activist, Hussein was a prisoner of the regime from 1984 to 1991.

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