GUNFIRE and shelling rattled a city in central Syria yesterday and killed a 12-year-old boy, as president Bashar Assad’s regime expanded its military crackdown on a seven-week-old uprising.
Like several other trouble spots in the country, the government has answered protests in the city of Homs by sending in tanks and soldiers to seal it off and cutting phone service to leave it further isolated.
The exact circumstances of the boy’s death, however, are unknown.
Authorities also carried out an arrest sweep in the coastal city of Banias, taking more than 200 people into custody, including a 10-year-old boy, and leaving six dead.
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.
Banias has a large power station, one of Syria’s two oil refineries and is the main point of export for Syrian oil.
It is predominantly Sunni Muslim but also 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.
Yesterday. SANA said Syrian authorities seized sophisticated weapons and that the army is still hunting “armed terrorist groups” across the country, including in Banias.
The continued crackdown suggests that Assad’s regime is determined to end the uprising by force and intimidation, despite escalating international outrage and a civilian death toll that has topped 580 since the unrest began in mid-March.
The government claims about 100 soldiers have also been killed.
The nationwide uprising has posed the most serious challenge to the Assad family’s 40-year rule.
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 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.
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 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 EU is expected to place sanctions on Syrian officials soon.
The UN said it is sending a team into Syria to investigate the situation.
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