AMMAN/HAMA, Syria (Reuters) - Syrian forces killed at least 17 people in raids near the Lebanon border and in the country’s Sunni tribal heartland, activists said, pursuing a military campaign to crush street protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
Assad’s forces have intensified assaults on towns and cities across the country since the start of Muslim fasting month of Ramadan to subdue mounting dissent against the ruling family, from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, despite threats of new U.S. sanctions and calls from Turkey, Syria’s powerful northern neighbour, and Arab nations, to halt the attacks.
Activists and rights campaigners said 11 civilians, including a woman and a child, were killed Thursday when troops backed by tanks swept into Qusair, 135 km (85 mile) north of Damascus, after overnight protests calling for Assad’s removal.
In nearby Homs, activists said Friday three people were killed in an overnight raid on the Byada residential district following protests in the city.
Nightly Ramadan prayers, which follow the breaking of the fast and known as ‘tarawih’, have presented a venue for more Syrians to march in daily protests against 41-years of Assad family rule across the country of 20 million, activists said.
Syrian authorities have expelled most independent journalists since the five-month uprising, making it difficult to verify accounts on the ground.
In the east, troops and members of the feared Military Intelligence, backed by tanks and armoured vehicles, expanded assaults in Deir al-Zor, capital of an oil producing province bordering Iraq’s Sunni heartland.
Four civilians were killed in house to house raids in Deir al-Zor Thursday and several shops belonging to families of prominent dissidents in the city were torched, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
One person was also killed in the coastal city of Latakia.
In Saraqeb, a town on Syria’s main north-south highway that has seen daily demonstrations, around 14 tanks and armoured vehicles also swept into the town. One hundred people were arrested by the security forces, residents said by telephone.
The tanks later withdrew and residents took to streets in a night rally, but security forces fired at the demonstrators, injuring four, the Syrian Observatory said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said what was necessary to pressure Assad was to sanction Syria’s oil and gas industry. She called on Europe and China, the main foreign players in Syria’s energy sector, to join in any proposed sanctions on the sector.
Linked to the ruling family, Syria’s oil industry generates most of the hard currency for the state, through a crude output of 380,000 barrels per day.
Asked why the United States has not yet called for Assad to step down, Clinton said Washington wants other nations to add their voices.
The United States has been “very clear” in its statements about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s loss of legitimacy, Clinton said, according to excerpts of an interview with CBS, a day after Washington imposed sanctions on Syria’s largest bank and on Syria’s biggest mobile telephone company, controlled by Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.
Robert Ford, the United States ambassador to Damascus earlier warned Syria Thursday of more U.S. sanctions if the authorities’ use of violence does not stop.
Regional powers Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all added pressure on Assad to stop the violence, although no country has proposed the kind of military intervention being carried out by NATO forces against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan spoke Thursday and agreed Syrians’ demands for a transition to democracy must be met, the White House said.
Syria’s northern towns have been a particular target in recent days of the crackdown on demonstrations calling for Assad’s overthrow, inspired by popular revolts against rulers elsewhere in the Arab world.
Officials escorted a group of Turkish reporters around the city of Hama Thursday after a week-long crackdown.
Hama was scene of a 1982 massacre, when troops loyal to Assad’s father, late President Hafez al-Assad, overran the city to crush Islamist insurgents, killing many thousands of people.
At least 1,700 civilians have been killed in the current uprising, rights groups say, and a series of military assaults on cities and towns since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan 10 days ago has sharpened international condemnation.
Syria says 500 soldiers and police have died in the bloodshed, which it blames on armed gangs and terrorists.
In Hama, main streets were empty Thursday, windows shuttered and most shops closed after the week-long military assault to crush protests in the city which became a symbol of defiance against Assad.
A day after authorities announced the army had pulled out, following the crackdown in which activists said scores of people were killed, Assad’s forces appeared in full control.
No tanks could be seen but armed, uniformed men stood on rooftops, soldiers manned a series of checkpoints into the city, and the governor’s building in the central square was flanked by two military vehicles topped by machine guns.
Several residents, their comments translated to the visiting Turkish journalists by Syrian officials, said the army moved in after the city was taken over by groups who had blocked roads and burnt state buildings.
But one youth, his face masked and only his eyes visible, had a different message. “You see us, we have no weapons, but they are attacking us with tanks and planes,” he said. “And I tell President Assad that, even though it will be difficult, we will get you out of power.”
Syrian human rights group Sawasiah said at least 30 people were arrested in dawn raids in the northern countryside near Aleppo, while similar arrest took place in the northern Idlib province, Damascus suburbs and the southern Hauran Plain.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rights campaigner Abdelkarim Rihawi was also arrested while he was at a cafe in Damascus.
Another activist group, the Local Coordinating Committees, said nine detainees had died from torture in detention over the last 10 days in Damascus, Homs, Deraa and Damascus suburbs.
European members of the U.N. Security Council Wednesday warned Syria that it could face tougher U.N. action if Assad continued the onslaught against protesters, while Russia urged Damascus to implement promised reforms as soon as possible.
But Russia and China, both with veto powers in the Council and backed by India, South Africa and Brazil, have vehemently opposed the idea of slapping U.N. sanctions on Damascus, which Western diplomats say would be the logical next step.
At Wednesday’s Council meeting, U.N. deputy political affairs chief Oscar Fernandez-Taranco said that nearly 2,000 Syrian civilians had been killed since March — 188 since July 31 and 87 on August 8 alone, diplomats at the meeting said.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Moscow had made clear to Damascus that Assad should follow through on reform promises as swiftly as possible. Asked if he thought the new U.S. sanctions on Syria were helpful, Churkin said: “No.”
Syrian envoy Bashar Ja’afari criticised European nations, accusing them of hiding misleading reporters and ignoring Assad’s promises of reform and national dialogue.
Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau at United Nations, Arshad Mohammed, Jeff Mason and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington, Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Philippa Fletcher