The Syrian army shelled residential areas and unleashed security forces Wednesday in an intensified push to crush the uprising against authoritarian President Bashar Assad, killing an 8-year-old boy and at least 17 others, a human rights group said.
The lethal shelling evoked bitter memories of the regime’s legacy of brutally suppressing dissent under Assad’s father, Hafez. In 1982, Hafez Assad crushed a Sunni uprising by shelling the town of Hama, killing 10,000 to 25,000 people, according to Amnesty International estimates.
Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, said 13 people were killed Wednesday in tank shelling on al-Haraa village outside Daraa, the southern city where the uprising began in mid-March. Five others were killed in the central city of Homs – most of them in shelling, he said. Several were killed by gunfire.
More than 770 people have been killed in the current crackdown on anti-government unrest and thousands have been detained, with about 9,000 still in custody, Qurabi said.
Residents reported heavy tank fire and gunfire Wednesday in at least three residential neighborhoods in the besieged city of Homs, which has seen some of the largest anti-government demonstrations during the seven-week-long uprising.
“There were loud explosions and gunfire from automatic rifles throughout the night and until this morning,” a resident told The Associated Press by telephone, asking that his name not be used for fear of government reprisals. “The area is totally besieged. We are being shelled.”
Few details were leaking out of the Daraa area and calls were not going through. The government has been cutting off phone and electric services to try to isolate restive areas.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon also urged Syria to allow an international aid assessment team to enter Daraa. He told reporters in Geneva he is disappointed the assessment team “has not yet been given the access it needs.”
Ban added he had been assured by Assad that the team would be allowed into the city.
Witnesses have reported the shelling of neighbourhoods in recent weeks, but the four-hour long siege in Homs was the most intense and signalled the government was stepping up its efforts to intimidate the population.
The massacre at Hama by the president’s father was seared into the minds of Syrians. After it, Hafez Assad ruled uncontested for the next two decades until his death.
Though Bashar Assad has not done anything on the scale of the Hama massacre in his 11 years in power, his crackdown has reminded some of his father’s tactics. Iranian allied-Syria is one of the most hard-line, anti-American Arab regimes in the Middle East.
Assad has dispatched army troops backed by tanks to Homs and other communities across the country, saying soldiers and security forces are rooting out “armed terrorist groups” and thugs he says are behind the violence.
He has also announced a series of reforms, widely viewed as symbolic overtures to appease protesters since the movement began in the southern city of Daraa in mid-March and quickly spread nationwide.
State-run Syrian TV said Wednesday the government formed a committee to come up with a new election law that would be “up to international standards.”
Before the uprising, such a declaration would have been unthinkable in a country with harsh restrictions who is allowed to run. Assad himself inherited power from his father in 2000 after an election in which he was the only candidate.
The regime has come under increasing international pressure to end its crackdown.
Germany said several European countries were summoning Syrian ambassadors and threatening new sanctions targeting the country’s leadership if it doesn’t halt the repression of protesters.
The European Union already has decided to impose sanctions on 13 Syrian officials, prohibiting them from travelling anywhere in the 27-nation bloc. But the first round of sanctions doesn’t target Assad himself.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke said European officials will make clear that “a second package that also includes the Syrian leadership” will follow if Syria does not immediately change course.