Thousands of Syrian troops raid rebellious city

BEIRUT (AP) — Thousands of soldiers backed by tanks and snipers moved in before dawn to the city where Syria’s anti-government uprising began, causing panic in the streets when they opened fire indiscriminately on civilians and went house-to-house rounding up suspected protesters. At least 11 people were killed and 14 others lay in the streets — either dead or gravely wounded, witnesses said.

The military raids on the southern city of Daraa and at least two other areas suggested Syria is trying to impose military control on the centers of protests against President Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades. Residents and human rights activists said the regime wants to terrify opponents and intimidate them from staging any more demonstrations.

The offensive was meticulously planned: Electricity, water and mobile phone services were cut. Security agents armed with guns and knives conducted house-to-house sweeps, neighborhoods were sectioned off and checkpoints were erected before the sun rose.

“They have snipers firing on everybody who is moving,” a witness told The Associated Press by telephone. “They aren’t discriminating. There are snipers on the mosque. They are firing at everybody,” he added, asking that his name not be used for fear of retribution.

The massive assault on Daraa appeared to be part of new strategy of crippling, pre-emptive strikes against any opposition to Assad, rather than reacting to demonstrations. Other crackdowns and arrest sweeps were reported on the outskirts of Damascus and the coastal town of Jableh — bringing more international condemnation and threats of targeted sanctions by Washington.

Razan Zeitounia, a human rights activist in Damascus, said the widespread arrests — including of men along with their families — appear to be an attempt to scare protesters and set an example for the rest of the country.

The attack on Daraa, an impoverished city on the Jordanian border, was by far the biggest in scope and firepower. Video purportedly shot by activists showed tanks rolling through streets and grassy fields with soldiers on foot jogging behind them.

Witnesses said busloads of troops poured in before dawn and snipers took up positions on the roofs of houses and high buildings while other security agents searched houses for suspected protesters.

“Let Obama come and take Syria. Let Israel come and take Syria. Let the Jews come,” shouted one Daraa resident over the phone. “Anything is better than Bashar Assad,” he said, playing on Syria’s hatred for Israel to highlight how much town residents despise their leader.

Syria has a pivotal role in most of the flashpoint issues of the Middle East — from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran’s widening influence. Instability has thrown into disarray the U.S. push for engagement with Damascus, part of Washington’s hopes to peel the country away from Hamas, Hezbollah and Tehran.

The White House said Monday it was considering sanctions against the Syrian government in response to the brutal crackdown. The statement from National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor was the first time officials had said publicly that sanctions were possible.

The military raids on the southern city of Daraa and at least two other areas suggested Syria is trying to impose military control on the centers of protests against President Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades. Residents and human rights activists said the regime wants to terrify opponents and intimidate them from staging any more demonstrations.

The offensive was meticulously planned: Electricity, water and mobile phone services were cut. Security agents armed with guns and knives conducted house-to-house sweeps, neighborhoods were sectioned off and checkpoints were erected before the sun rose.

“They have snipers firing on everybody who is moving,” a witness told The Associated Press by telephone. “They aren’t discriminating. There are snipers on the mosque. They are firing at everybody,” he added, asking that his name not be used for fear of retribution.

The massive assault on Daraa appeared to be part of new strategy of crippling, pre-emptive strikes against any opposition to Assad, rather than reacting to demonstrations. Other crackdowns and arrest sweeps were reported on the outskirts of Damascus and the coastal town of Jableh — bringing more international condemnation and threats of targeted sanctions by Washington.

Razan Zeitounia, a human rights activist in Damascus, said the widespread arrests — including of men along with their families — appear to be an attempt to scare protesters and set an example for the rest of the country.

The attack on Daraa, an impoverished city on the Jordanian border, was by far the biggest in scope and firepower. Video purportedly shot by activists showed tanks rolling through streets and grassy fields with soldiers on foot jogging behind them.

Witnesses said busloads of troops poured in before dawn and snipers took up positions on the roofs of houses and high buildings while other security agents searched houses for suspected protesters.

“Let Obama come and take Syria. Let Israel come and take Syria. Let the Jews come,” shouted one Daraa resident over the phone. “Anything is better than Bashar Assad,” he said, playing on Syria’s hatred for Israel to highlight how much town residents despise their leader.

Syria has a pivotal role in most of the flashpoint issues of the Middle East — from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran’s widening influence. Instability has thrown into disarray the U.S. push for engagement with Damascus, part of Washington’s hopes to peel the country away from Hamas, Hezbollah and Tehran.

The White House said Monday it was considering sanctions against the Syrian government in response to the brutal crackdown. The statement from National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor was the first time officials had said publicly that sanctions were possible.

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