Syria sends tanks into Baniyas as regime refuses to compromise
By Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent, and Philip Sherwell in New York 4:57PM BST 07 May 2011
Syria’s autocratic regime was accused of killing three women on Saturday after security forces apparently opened fire on an all-female demonstration protesting the crackdown on the country’s democratic uprising.
The women died as President Bashar al-Assad sent tanks in the seaside town of Baniyas, where it sought to replicate the shoot-and-crush tactics already used to brutal effect elsewhere across the country.
All-female demonstrations can normally expect gentler treatment from the Syrian security forces, who have recently taken to mass arrests of military-age males in their attempts to restore government authority. But the march on the outskirts of Baniyas got no such mercy. As the women participated in a small demonstration on the main coastal highway outside the town, they were shot by plain clothes security agents, said human rights activists.
Phone lines to Baniyas were cut, but videos posted online showed columns of tanks, trucks and other armoured vehicles moving down roads into the city.
Residents who did manage to get calls out reported shooting on the street.
“They are near the kindergarten,” one resident told The Sunday Telegraph. “Units of special forces are moving in. I can hear gunshots.”
“The police were shooting in the air initially because people formed a human shield to prevent tanks from entering,” a human rights activist outside the city said. He reported a wave of arrests as the soldiers advanced.
The Assad regime’s hardline response to protest, which has also included the arrest of an estimated 8,000 activists and has been unaffected by the lifting of a 48-year state of emergency, was a snub both to neighbours such as Turkey which have urged restraint and to the European Union.
The EU on Friday agreed sanctions targeted against 13 named members of the regime but excluded President Bashir al-Assad on the grounds that he was at heart a reformer. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, also said on Friday that there was still a chance of reform in Syria.
Syria has had moral support from the region, even from regimes that are staunch allies of the West.
One source closely connected the Assad family, who dominate political, military and economic life in the country, told The Sunday Telegraph they have held negotiations with the United Arab Emirates over relations between the two countries and to ensure the possibility of a comfortable exile in Dubai should their grip on power loosen.
The family are understood to have assets in the United Arab Emirates, particularly Bashir’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s richest businessman, who is said to have property and other investments in Dubai through a complex series of holding companies.
First reports from Baniyas said that shooting broke out overnight, apparently a direct response to large crowds of protesters which had gathered on the streets during the week, including on Friday.
The troops concentrated on Sunni areas of the city – the Assad family belong to the other major sect in the area, the Alawites, who form the basis of the regime.
“There are gunboats spotted off the coast, we can hear heavy gunfire,” another resident said by telephone.
“The landline and cellular connections have been out since dawn, and power outages are spreading. There is also concern about the regime repeating what they’ve done in Deraa.”
Deraa is the city where the uprising against Assad rule began in mid-March, and where opposition has been crushed over the last fortnight.
Tanks sent in by the army’s Fourth Division, a crack unit reporting directly to the president’s brother, Maher al-Assad, occupied the streets while troops fired randomly as a terror tactic, killing more than 100 people according to most activists’ reports.
Witnesses described seeing dead bodies lying in the streets, with those trying to retrieve them also being fired on.
As tanks withdrew during the week, a team from the Red Cross and Red Crescent were allowed in to distribute supplies on Thursday. They reported back on shortages of medical supplies and apartment blocks whose upper floors had no water thanks to a shortage of electricity to operate the pumps.
Ayman Abdel Nour, a former adviser to Bashir al-Assad who now lives in exile in Dubai, said the crackdown on Baniyas showed the importance to the regime of ensuring a lack of action on the streets before allowing in independent observers.
Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations secretary general, has announced an investigation team would be allowed into the country to assess the situation.
“They are focusing on the main and simple issue, opposition, and so want to ensure there is no life left in it, on the street,” said Mr Nour. “If there’s any committee going in to investigate, they will find no-one to talk to – they will either be dead or arrested.”
The head of a Syrian human rights organisation said: “We have seen six days of a rash of killing and arrests. The regime is in fear. They want people to stay at home but it is not working. Yesterday (Friday) we saw a huge number of people protest in Baniyas.
“It was an amazing example of peaceful protest. But we expect there will have been casualties and a huge number of detainees.”
The Syrian government itself, following the lead set by the regimes of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Libya’s Col Muammar Gaddafi, continued on Saturday to give an entirely different version of events, in which the only dead were security forces set upon by the “armed gangs and terrorists” who have been infiltrated from abroad to stir up unrest.
Four policemen and a soldier were said by state media to have been killed in the city of Homs on Friday by state media, which made no mention of the 26 protesters shot dead around the country in otherwise peaceful protests, according to most activists’ accounts.
Reem Haddad, a director of state television and information ministry spokesman, angrily dismissed western reports of the violence in an interview on the BBC Today programme on Saturday.
She denied that the army had entered Homs, Syria’s third city and the scene of repeated protests and shootings, and said that tanks had not gone into Deraa to attack innocent civilians.
“The reason for that was they were not demonstrators, they were not protesters, they were armed gangs who were creating havoc and terror against citizens, who were looting and burning public property and private property,” she said.
She said only 80 civilians had died up until “three or four days ago” and challenged human rights groups to provide names, dates of birth and locations to justify their claims that more than 500 had been killed – claims upped by one Syrian rights group to 800 on Saturday.
She also said that more than 300 people had responded to the president’s offer of an amnesty last week, handing in weapons which had been shown on television.
“These were not peaceful protesters at all – they were people with guns, with bombs,” she said, before hanging up on John Humphrys, the presenter.
Opposition groups abroad are now admitting that the government’s hard line seems to be working in reducing the numbers attending protests on the streets, though thousands are still gathering in a number of cities every Friday.
This may give President Assad yet more confidence to defy even those regional powers on whom he had come to rely for diplomatic support, such as Turkey, which has made intense efforts to improve ties in recent years.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has spoken to President Assad three times since the unrest began, and sent his intelligence chief to Damascus twice, to impress on him the need for reconciliation and reform. He is said by insiders in Ankara to be losing patience.
Two visits to President Assad in Damascus by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, a staunch American ally and foe of Iran, a Syrian ally, came as more of a surprise.
The Syrian state news agency said Sheikh Abdullah had conveyed a “message of support” and that the two men had discussed the situation in Yemen, but UAE government insiders admitted that a more wide-ranging and significant discussion had ensued.
One businessman and close Assad family friend who has acted as a conduit to western governments in the past said that among them were “what if” scenarios, including the collapse and subsequent flight of the regime.
He said the President Assad and his family and associates wanted reassurances that their escape route would be secured and their assets – many already held in the Gulf – were safe.
The UAE has failed to follow the United States and Europe in imposing sanctions on regime figures. Their assets in the Gulf are well disguised behind a web of front companies, but it is known that Rami Makhlouf, the Assad family cousin who has become Syria’s richest businessman, owns property investments in Dubai.
His holding company, Cham,….. Read more…..