x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Syrian troops round up thousands in Banias

Protest leaders call for day of solidarity with those held as Syrian officials claim terrorist gangs and foreign hands are behind the unrest.

DAMASCUS // Syrian security forces rounded up thousands of men in a bid to crush an anti-regime protest movement in Banias yesterday, as shots rang out in a Damascus suburb surrounded by troops, activists said.

Protests organisers, meanwhile, called for a day of solidarity today with "prisoners of conscience" held in Syrian jails, according to a statement posted on the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page.

Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said water, electricity and telephone lines have been cut off in Banias, on Syria's north-west Mediterranean coast.

"There were house-to-house raids overnight and it continued on Monday morning," Mr Abdul Rahman said.

"Thousands of men, including youths, have been rounded up by the army and security forces ... to be interrogated and they are being beaten. More than 400 are still being held," the activist added.

He denounced the authorities for using brutal force to crush the protests. "The military solution is useless in Syria. Things will only be solved when a democratic society emerges," he said.

"Residents hoped that the army would arrest regime supporters who have terrorised Banias but, instead, the army arrested unarmed residents."

Among those detained were protest leaders and doctors at a hospital which was encircled by the military, the Syrian observatory said in a statement yesterday.

The military said six soldiers, including three officers, were killed in clashes on Sunday as the army pursued "armed terrorist groups" in Banias, Homs and around Deraa.

Tanks rumbled into several districts of the central industrial city of Homs and deployed along the corniche in Banias overnight Saturday-Sunday, according to activists.

Owners of internet software shops have also been arrested, he said, although detainees aged over 40 had been released.

Hundreds of women have taken to the streets of Banias since early yesterday to demand the release of men arrested by security forces and some even charged checkpoints to vent their anger, activists said.

Meanwhile, gunfire broke out in the western Damascus suburb of Muadamiya in the morning and telephone lines were cut, an activist said.

A witness confirmed the report, saying the main road to the Damascus suburb had been sealed off.

Despite the heavy-handed repression, the Syrian Revolution 2011, a Facebook group that has been a motor of the protests, said "demonstrations will continue every day".

Embattled President Bashar al Assad, quoted yesterday in Al Watan newspaper, which is close to the government, promised to press ahead with reforms and forecast the political crisis in Syria was nearing an end.

"The crisis will pass and end, and the question of administrative, political and press reforms will advance," Mr al Assad said.

He stressed the need "to consolidate national unity because the nation is the mother of all of us and we need to unite in the face of this plot". Syrian officials claim terrorist gangs and foreign hands are behind the unrest.

Rights groups say more than 600 people have been killed and 8,000 jailed or gone missing in the eight-week crackdown on protesters. The European Union decided on Friday to impose sanctions on 13 Syrian officials and the US said it would take action if the crackdown continued.