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At least 18 killed in Syrian crackdown

Military forces in tanks launch an assault in the city of Homs, activists say, in an attempt to round up protest leaders.

May 11, 2011|By Roula Hajjar and Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • A photo released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows pro-government protesters holding portraits of President Bashar Assad in a show of support in Damascus.
A photo released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows pro-government… (Syrian Arab News Agency )

Reporting from Beirut — Tanks hammered away at Syria's third-largest city Wednesday, leaving at least 18 people dead as part of an offensive to crush demonstrations against President Bashar Assad's rule, witnesses and activists said.

Security forces scoured the city for protest leaders in an attempt to stamp out the greatest challenge to the five-decade Baath Party regime in a generation. Troops and plainclothes security officials also looted shops and stole jewelry, witnesses said.

"We woke up to the sound of our windows rattling," said an activist reached by telephone describing tank fire in the besieged city of Homs. "Women and children have fled their homes, and only those willing to die for their dignity remain."

Among those killed was Mehro Naqrour, a 40-year-old Christian who was allegedly shot by snipers.

"They say we are all [Islamic extremists] in this movement," said the witness, who asked that his name not be published for fear of bringing the state's wrath on him and his family. "Well, then, why is this poor Christian man dead?"

Video posted on the Internet captured the sounds of artillery rounds piercing the dawn. Activists in Syria and elsewhere collected accounts from Homs describing heavy shelling of the Bab Amr and Dubiyeh districts that began at dawn and continued for at least two hours, though it was not clear whether the tank rounds were aimed directly at people or fired into vacant areas to terrify residents into submission.

The witness said three tanks were stationed on a bridge to Bab Amr, making it difficult for anyone to enter the area.

The official Syrian Arab News Agency said the full-blown military assault was an attempt to rid the area of "terrorist cells" but provided no further information except that there had been some arrests.

The news agency cited military sources as saying that several people had been injured and numerous alleged militants had been killed.

Activists disputed the official account.

"There are no weapons with the people," the pan-Arab Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera reported, citing an activist. "However, members of the army joined the uprising and then security personnel wanted to punish them."

Another witness in Homs told Syrian human rights activists that snipers surrounded the city's soccer field, which was being used to hold detainees.

Homs, a majority Sunni Muslim city near the border with Lebanon, has become a bastion of opposition to Assad's regime, which is dominated by Alawites, a small Shiite Muslim sect.

Just hours before the tanks rolled in, residents took to the streets in a show of defiance. "Take flight, take flight, take flight, bye, bye, bye Bashar, have a good night," they chanted in a video posted on the Internet. "The people want to overthrow the regime."

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Unrest continued across the country as Assad's forces, commanded in part by his brother Maher, continued a campaign of arrests and detentions to stifle the opposition movement.

In the coastal city of Baniyas, detainees released Wednesday described torture and beatings in crowded prisons. Activists also reported the disappearance of Syrian opposition figure Mazen Adi from Damascus.

Media restrictions have made independent verification of activists' reports difficult.

Al Jazeera said it had been told by Syrian officials that its correspondent Dorothy Parvaz, detained April 29 upon arrival in Damascus and not heard from since, had been deported to Iran, where she is a citizen. But an Iranian official disputed the contention, noting that Parvaz also holds American and Canadian passports.

"She has not come back to Tehran, otherwise we would ask her to give an interview or have a press conference to confirm she is back," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to journalists. "Possibly she has gone to a third country, perhaps Canada or the U.S."

Syria's violent suppression of dissent prompted the European Union this week to impose sanctions targeting arms sales to the government and 13 regime officials. But many activists dismissed the measures as ineffective.

"How can punishing 13 Syrian officials actually make a difference?" asked the activist in Homs. "I am not saying I want another Libya. I am not asking for foreign military intervention. But anyhow, the international community is not being serious in its stance when it comes to the uprising in Syria."

daragahi@latimes.com

Hajjar is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and a special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.

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