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 the nationwide revolt engulfing the country.
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. The widening crackdown suggests that Assad's regime is determined to crush the uprising by force and intimidation, despite rapidly escalating 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 said the crackle of gunfire could be heard in the Damascus suburb of Maadamiyeh.
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 had promised the women that all men over the age of 40 will be soon freed.
In an indication that the regime shows no sign of folding, Assad was quoted as saying in comments published Monday that "the current crisis in Syria will be overcome and that the process of administrative, political and media reforms are continuing." The report, in the private daily Al-Watan, which is close to the government, did not elaborate but said Assad made the comments while receiving a local delegation Sunday.
Abdul-Rahman said that more than 250 people had been arrests in Banias, which home to one of Syria's two oil refineries. Special forces backed by tanks entered the city Saturday.
Among those arrested was a leading organizer of the demonstrations, along with his father and three brothers. Security forces also detained Firas Khaddam, nephew of former Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam, who has been living in exile since he left Syria in 2005 and called for the overthrow of the regime, Abdul-Rahman said.
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.
There has been no independent confirmation that protesters have armed themselves or opened fire on security forces.
A resident who fled Banias two days ago told The Associated Press Monday that among those detained were mosque imams, the head of the municipality and members of leading families in the city such as Khaddam, al-Masri and Sahyouni. He spoke condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.
Monday's raids come a day after army backed by tanks moved into different areas in the country including the central city of Homs, Syria's largest, and three villages near Daraa.
The unrest gripping Syria was triggered by the arrests of teenagers caught scrawling anti-government graffiti on walls in Daraa, a southern city near the border with Jordan. Despite boasts by Assad that his nation was immune from the kind of uprisings sweeping the Arab world, protests against his rule quickly spread across the country of 23 million people.
Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has blamed "armed thugs" and foreigners. The regime has hit back at protesters with large-scale military operations, including an 11-day siege in Daraa that killed about 50 residents.
Syria has also banned foreign media and restricted access for reporters to many parts of the country, making it difficult to independently confirm witness accounts of the violence.