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With Troops and Tanks, Fearful Alawites Tighten Their Grip
From the New York Times:
Syria Sends More Troops to Besieged Southern Town
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian government deployed more military reinforcements on Saturday to the besieged southern town of Dara’a, which has emerged as the symbol of Syria’s uprising and a center of the government’s crackdown, as the death toll from protests a day earlier rose to 73, according to activists and witnesses.
Security forces fortified their presence in Dara’a and its hinterland soon after dawn, with at least four tanks and 20 armored personal carriers arriving from the capital, said a witness from Dara’a, reached by phone. The military also shelled the Omari mosque, a landmark for protesters since demonstrations began more than six weeks ago against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, in power since 2000.
Four people were killed Saturday, said Abdallah Abazid, a resident. Among them, he said, were the son of the mosque’s preacher, who was shot when security forces entered his house looking for his father. The preacher, Sheik Ahmed al-Siasnah, was reportedly arrested later, though that could not be confirmed. He was among a delegation that met with Mr. Assad three weeks ago to discuss potential reforms in Syria.
The military effectively laid siege to Dara’a on Monday, storming the town with tanks and soldiers, and cutting electricity and phone lines. Since then, Dara’a has become a rallying cry for protesters across Syria, though the government has insisted that the unrest there is the work of Salafists, its preferred term for militant Islamists.
“It is a matter of a few hours only and everything will be finished in Dara’a,” a pro-government politician said from Damascus. “It is impossible for the Syrian regime to let some people announce a Salafi emirate in Dara’a. This is not Afghanistan.”
Through the day, Mr. Abazid said, heavy gunfire could be heard. Amid reports of shortages of food, medicine and baby formula, residents remained inside their homes another day, fearful that they might be killed by snipers if they went outside, he said.
“The security forces are hunting us down,” he said. “We are unarmed and protecting our town with our bare chests, and they are shooting at us.”
The military reinforcements in Dara’a came a day after the United States announced sanctions against three top officials in Mr. Assad’s government, including his brother Maher al-Assad, who is leading the military operations in Dara’a.
Activists have warned of a humanitarian crisis in the town.
“The situation in Dara’a is worse today than it was before,” said Wissan Tarif, the executive director of Insan, a Syrian human rights group.
On Friday, 34 people were killed there when thousands of protesters from nearby villages, in a show of solidarity, descended on the town, which straddles a largely agricultural region, known as the Houran, that is knit by extended clan loyalties. Some organizers said the protesters, carrying olive branches and white sheets to signal their peacefulness, were trying to break the siege and deliver food and water. Security forces fired at them anyway, in some of the worst carnage since the uprising began.
Mr. Tarif said that security forces refused to return the bodies of the dead to their families in hopes of stopping funeral processions, which have often turned into more protests. The only bodies given back, he said, were of children, and their parents were told to bury them early Saturday morning in the presence of Syrian officials.
Friday’s toll was the worst since a week earlier, when at least 112 people were killed in protests in towns and cities across the country. Organizers said the breadth was similar on Friday, with large protests in the central cities of Homs and Hama, towns on the Mediterranean coast like Baniyas and Latakia, and Kurdish towns in the east. A protest of hundreds was reported in Damascus — bigger than past weeks, but still relatively small by the standards of demonstrations elsewhere.
Since the uprising began, human rights groups say 535 people have been killed.