Gunfire and shelling rattled a city in central Syria today killing a 12-year-old boy, as President Bashar Assad’s autocratic regime expanded its military crackdown on a seven-week-old uprising, activists said.
The exact circumstances of the boy’s death in the city of Homs were unclear. Like several other trouble spots, the government has answered protests there by sending in tanks and soldiers to seal it off and cutting phone service to leave it further isolated.
The continued crackdown suggests that Assad’s regime is determined to end the uprising by force and intimidation, despite rapidly escalating international outrage and a death toll that has topped 580 civilians since the unrest began in mid-March, according to rights groups.
The government and some observers also say about 100 soldiers have been killed.
Authorities carried out an arrest sweep Sunday in the coastal city of Banias, also a protest hot spot, taking more than 200 people into custody, including a 10-year-old boy, activists said.
“It appears to be designed to punish his parents,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The nationwide uprising has posed the most serious challenge to the Assad family’s 40-year ruling dynasty.
The unrest was triggered by the arrests of teenagers caught scrawling anti-government graffiti on walls in the southern city of Daraa. Despite boasts by Assad that his nation was immune from the kind of uprisings sweeping the Arab world, protests against his rule quickly spread across the country of 23 million people.
Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has blamed “armed thugs” and foreigners. The regime has hit back at protesters with large-scale military operations, including an 11-day siege in Daraa that killed about 50 residents.
Syria has also banned foreign media and restricted access for reporters to many parts of the country, making it difficult to independently confirm witness accounts of the violence.
The city of Banias, where today’s arrest raids were carried out, has also been sealed off. Water, electricity and nearly all forms of communication to Banias have been cut since troops in tanks and other armoured vehicles rolled in on Saturday, Abdul-Rahman said.
The weekend death toll there rose to six today, according to another activist, who declined to be named for fear of reprisal.
Banias has a large power station and one of the country’s two oil refineries and is the main point of export for Syrian oil. It is predominantly Sunni Muslim but also is home to many Alawites – the sect of the ruling Assad family and many senior officials.
Syrian officials and state-run media have tried to portray Banias as a hotbed of Islamic extremists to justify the crackdown there. The state news agency SANA said the army and security forces were pursuing fugitives in Banias and were able to arrest a large number of them and confiscate their weapons.
On Sunday, SANA said Syrian authorities have seized sophisticated weapons and that the army is still hunting down “armed terrorist groups” across the country, including in Banias.
The use of overwhelming force to crush an uprising worked for Syria’s close ally Iran when it quelled the 2009 Green Revolution triggered by a disputed presidential election. It has also worked for the Gulf nation of Bahrain in the current wave of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
The US has imposed sanctions on three senior Syrian officials as well as Syria’s intelligence agency and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard over the crackdown. The European Union is expected to place sanctions on Syrian officials soon, and the UN said Saturday it is sending a team into Syria to investigate the situation.