Hundreds of detentions in Syrian crackdown

May 10, 2011

Government troops detained hundreds more people in towns across Syria on Monday as they pursued their relentless crackdown against the stubbornly persistent protest movement that has swelled in recent weeks to challenge the regime.

Troops backed by tanks sealed off the Damascus suburb of Moadamiya in the small hours of the morning, and residents heard gunfire as soldiers conducted house-to-house raids looking for people who had joined in recent anti-government demonstrations. Witnesses said they saw nine busloads of prisoners being taken away, said Wissam Tarif of the human rights group Insan.

There were also reports of more than 300 arrests in the central city of Homs, where three neighborhoods have been sealed off by the military since Friday, and in the Mediterranean port of Baniyas, a key protest flash point that was invaded by tanks early Saturday.

In Baniyas, about 400 men are still being held at the town’s football stadium after soldiers went house by house over the weekend detaining every man between the ages of 18 and 45, according to Rami Abdelrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which maintains contacts with a network of activists in the country.

He said tht many houses in Baniyas are empty because their occupants have fled, and that the soldiers looted belongings and smashed furniture in those homes. Among those detained were several distant relatives, including a nephew of former vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam, who resigned and relocated to Paris in 2005 after losing a power struggle with President Bashar al-Assad.

According to Tarif, the latest arrests bring to more than 10,000 the number of people who have been taken into custody since the anti-government demonstrations first erupted in March, with more than 700 people reported killed, most of them shot down while protesting.

A senior adviser to Assad, Bouthaina Shaaban, told the New York Times on Monday, “I hope we are witnessing the end of the story. I think now we’ve passed the most dangerous moment. I hope so, I think so.”

Responding to the increasing repression, the European Union on Monday imposed an arms embargo on Syria, the Associated Press reported. The E.U. sanctions ban the shipment of “arms and equipment that could be used for internal repression,” according to the AP.

After failing to set an example for the rest of the country with its massive military assault late last month against the southern town of Daraa, the government now appears to be focusing on rounding up as many people as it can in places where protests have occurred.

The assault on Daraa, which was besieged and bombarded by tank fire for days, has succeeded in quashing the protests there, simply because people are unable to leave their homes without being arrested or shot at, activists say.

But the experience of Daraa failed to deter protesters in most other parts of the country. They have turned out in large numbers on each of the subsequent Fridays since the Daraa assault began. Scattered protests have also continued on other days of the week.

A Syrian oppositon activist told the AP early Tuesday that troops backed by tanks entered villages near Daraa after midnight.

People in Homs, Baniyas and Moadamiya and several other besieged Damascus suburbs are also unable to leave their homes because of the heavy presence of the security forces, activists say. With telephone and cellphone lines to those areas also suspended, people are unable to coordinate rallies, and it is hard to obtain information about what is going on, they say. Yet even as the crackdown spreads and intensifies, citizens in other parts of the country are continuing to go out onto the streets to hold demonstrations, usually in the evenings. Protests were reported late Sunday in Latakia and Deir al-Zour. On Monday several hundred women in besieged Baniyas staged a demonstration to demand the release of the men arrested in the raids, Abdelrahman said.

“When they close down one city, the protests start in another,” he said, predicting that the opposition movement would not give up. “People can’t go back to how things were before.”

But in comments quoted by a state-run Syrian newspaper, Assad predicted that the government would prevail. “The current crisis in Syria will be overcome,” he told a visiting delegation, according to the al-Watan daily.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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