AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian tanks and armoured vehicles deployed around the town of Rastan on Wednesday, witnesses said, raising fears of another crackdown on protests challenging President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
Residents said the military vehicles had been taking up positions at the northern edge of Rastan, 20 km (12 miles) north of the industrial city of Homs, and 15 km away from its southern entrance since Wednesday morning.
The tanks were deployed after residents rejected a demand by Baath Party official Sobhi Harbi that they hand over several hundred men in exchange for tanks staying outside the town.
Last Friday security forces killed 17 demonstrators, residents said, and some 50 members of the ruling Baath Party
resigned, according to a human rights activist.
“Rastan is tribal. Its inhabitants will not let the army step on them without resistance,” one resident said.
A Syrian rights group said on Tuesday hundreds of Syrians had been charged with “maligning the prestige of the state”, in Assad’s drive to crush protests, now in their seventh week, against his 11-year autocratic rule.
The charge, which carries a three-year prison sentence, was lodged on Tuesday against hundreds of people detained this week before the Muslim day of prayer on Friday, when the largest demonstrations calling for Assad’s overthrow typically occur.
“Mass arrests are continuing across Syria in another violation of human rights and international conventions,” said Rami Abdelrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The campaign intensified after a tank-backed army unit, led by Assad’s brother Maher, last week shelled and machinegunned the old quarter of Deraa, the fount of the uprising inspired by pro-democracy revolts elsewhere in the Arab world.
Instability in Syria, fulcrum of several Middle Eastern conflicts, could have serious repercussions for its neighbours. Baathist-ruled Syria has maintained an anti-Israel alliance with Iran but also a stable ceasefire with Israel since the 1970s.
Assad said the army would end its mission in Deraa “very soon”, according to the semi-official al-Watan newspaper, playing down the uprising there and the army’s response, which Washington has condemned as “barbaric”.
“Any country in the world could be subjected to events that Deraa has been subjected to,” Assad was quoted as saying by the newspaper on Wednesday during a meeting with officials from Deir al-Zor and Albou Kamal near the Iraqi border.
Authorities blame armed groups and infiltrators for unrest and say they have fired on civilians and security forces. A military official on state news agency SANA said security forces arrested members of an armed terrorist group in Deraa and found weapons and ammunition hidden underground and in gardens.
Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Insan human rights group, said 2,843 detainees had been verified by family members and the actual number could be as high as 8,000. More than 800 of them had been taken from Deraa.
Those detained across the country include activists, community leaders, people seen taking videos or pictures on mobile phones and people suspected of uploading videos on the Internet, Tarif said. But security forces were also randomly detaining people in Deraa and Douma, he said.
The demonstrations began with demands for political freedom and an end to corruption, but after a heavy security crackdown, protesters now want Assad to leave.
Assad belongs to the minority Alawite Shi’ite sect whose family has ruled majority Sunni Muslim Syria for 41 years, 30 of those by his late father Hafez al-Assad.
Security forces have killed at least 560 civilians in attacks on demonstrators since the protests erupted in Deraa on March 18, human rights groups say.
Amnesty International said protesters told the rights group they had been beaten with sticks and cables and were subjected to harsh conditions, including a lack of food.
“The use of unwarranted lethal force, arbitrary detention and torture appear to be the desperate actions of a government that is intolerant of dissent and must be halted immediately,” Amnesty official Philip Luther said.
Residents of Damascus suburbs said roadblocks and arrests had intensified this week around the capital. One resident said she saw security forces in plainclothes putting up sandbags and a machinegun on a road near the town of Kfar Batna on Tuesday.
A government official from a neighbouring Arab state said the security campaign seemed intended to prevent protests after Friday prayers, the only time Syrians are allowed to gather in any number, although security forces prevented thousands from praying in mosques last Friday.
International condemnation of the repression has intensified since the Deraa assault, which revived memories of the bloody suppression of an armed Islamist uprising in the city of Hama by Hafez al-Assad.
Germany and Britain said they were seeking the imposition of European Union sanctions against Syrian leaders — after a U.S. announcement of sanctions last week — and France said Bashar al-Assad should be among the targets of sanctions.
In a sign Syria was worried about a loss of confidence in the pound, which has seen some conversion to U.S. dollars, the central bank said it would raise interest rates on deposits by 2 percent and halved banks’ reserve requirements to 5 percent.
Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Yara Bayoumy and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; writing by Yara Bayoumy; editing by Mark Heinrich