Amman: Syrian Army units backed by tanks have tightened the siege of two defiant urban centers, in a sign that President Bashar al-Assad is widening the use of the military to crush demonstrations against his autocratic rule.
Tanks and armored vehicles deployed around Rastan town on Wednesday and army units set up checkpoints in Sunni districts in Banias, days after a loyalist army division led by Assad`s brother Maher crushed protests in the southern city of Deraa with shellfire and machineguns.
The demonstrations in Syria, inspired by pro-democracy uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, began with demands for political freedom and an end to corruption. Assad`s response -- repression and an offer of limited reform -- led to wider demands for his removal.
Before the Army stormed Deraa, the cradle of the Syrian uprising, Assad had relied mainly on security forces and secret police to confront the mass demonstrations.
"Assad`s decision to use the Army is pretty much the utmost escalation of force he can muster and a clear signal that he has no interest in any reconciliation," an Arab government official monitoring the situation in Syria said.
Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect. His father Hafez ruled majority Sunni Syria for 30 years, succeeded on his death 11 years ago by Bashar.
The elder Assad extended Alawite control of the army, which is now led by mostly Alawite officers and effectively controlled by Bashar`s brother Maher al-Assad, military experts say.
The Army and pervasive security apparatus underpin the power structure in Syria, fulcrum of several Middle Eastern conflicts. The ruling hierarchy has an anti-Israel alliance with Iran, but has kept the Golan Heights frontier with the Jewish state quiet since a 1974 US-brokered ceasefire.
Human rights groups say the army, security forces and gunmen loyal to Assad have killed at least 560 demonstrating civilians since the protests erupted in Deraa on March 18.
Last Friday military intelligence staff shot dead at least 17 demonstrators in Rastan, residents and rights campaigners said, after 50 members of the ruling Baath Party in the town resigned.
Tanks were deployed there after residents rejected a demand by Baath Party official Sobhi Harb that they hand over several hundred men in exchange for tanks staying outside the town.
Mass arrests continue
In the mixed coastal city Banias, soldiers deployed on Wednesday in the main market area which separates Alawite from Sunni districts.
The Army set up checkpoints in Sunni areas and arrested 10 people. Military intelligence turned back a convoy of civilian vehicles loaded with food for the besieged quarters, a human rights campaigner in contact with Banias said.
In a show of force in the capital Damascus, a convoy of 30 Republican Guard tanks and up to 70 trucks filled with soldiers were seen on the main ring road.
"Each truck had 20 to 30 soldiers. The convoy was either heading north in the direction of Homs or south in the direction of Deraa," a witness said.
Armed troops also deployed in the Damascus suburb of Erbin and in the town of Tel north of the capital, where security forces arrested at least 80 men, women and children, the human rights organization Sawasiah said.
"Five men over 70 years old were arrested. No one is escaping beatings and insults. Two mothers were taken as hostages because security forces could not find their sons," Sawasiah said in a statement on the Tel arrests.
The authorities say the unrest is caused by armed groups and infiltrators who have fired on civilians and security forces.
Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Insan human rights group, said family members had confirmed the detention of 2,843 people across Syria and the actual number could be as high as 8,000. More than 800 of them had been taken from Deraa.
The United States, which had improved ties with Assad in the last two years, described the attack on Deraa as "barbaric."