Syrian forces arrest hundreds in house-to-house raids

BEIRUT —Syrian security forces arrested hundreds of activists and anti-government protesters in house-to-house raids across the country Monday, part of an escalating government crackdown aimed at stamping out a revolt engulfing the country.

The government’s punishing response triggered new international sanctions Monday, as the European Union imposed an arms embargo. The measure, which followed U.S. sanctions, also prohibits 13 Syrian government officials from travelling anywhere in the 27-nation EU and freezes their assets.

President Bashar Assad has dispatched army troops and tanks to crush the seven-week uprising that has posed the most serious challenge to his family’s 40-year rule. Assad’s regime appears determined to crush the uprising by force and intimidation, despite the rapidly growing international outrage and a death toll that has topped 630 civilians since the unrest began, according to rights groups.

Monday’s arrests, which zeroed in on the protests’ organizers and participants, were focused in four areas — the central city of Homs, the coastal city of Banias, some suburbs of the capital Damascus and villages around the southern flashpoint city of Daraa, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

He and other activists said the crackle of gunfire could be heard in the Damascus suburb of Maadamiyeh.

Activists said security forces redeployed in the town Monday after a brief withdrawal the day before, closing all roads leading in.

The area, scene of large demonstrations in past weeks, was without electricity, communication or water, the activists said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. Residents also reported house-to-house raids and arrests and said several tanks were stationed in the town.

By early afternoon, scores of women were demonstrating in Banias, demanding the release of hundreds of detained men who were being held at the city’s soccer stadium, Abdul-Rahman said. He added that security officers promised the women that all men over the age of 40 would be freed.

The European Union said Monday it was banning the shipment to Syria of “arms and equipment that could be used for internal repression.”

In an attempt to increase the pressure on Assad’s regime, the United States has also imposed sanctions. Those penalties target three senior Syrian officials as well as Syria’s intelligence agency and the Revolutionary Guard in Iran, a key Syrian ally.

Abdul-Rahman said that more than 250 people had been arrested in Banias, which is home to one of Syria’s two oil refineries. Special forces backed by tanks entered the city Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Al Baath newspaper of Syria’s ruling Baath party said “cautious calm” has been restored to Banias. It said the showdown in the city “will end within a few hours.” The Al-Watan newspaper said Banias has been under the full control of the Syrian army after “fierce” battles with “armed terrorist” groups. It said the groups used heavy weapons and mortar rounds.

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.

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