Army tanks yesterday shelled a residential district in Homs, a rights campaigner said in Syria’s third-largest city, which has emerged as the most populous center of defiance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
“Homs is shaking with the sound of explosions from tank shelling and heavy machineguns in the Bab Amro neighborhood,” Najati Tayara said.
Tayara said a Syrian Christian was killed by sniper fire to his head in the nearby Inshaat District, adding that the authorities were trying to raise sectarian tensions to undermine pro-democracy demonstrations.
He said Maher Naqour was shot as he was standing in front of his house in an area where snipers had been deployed on rooftops as part of a military sweep.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian authorities, who have banned most international media from Syria.
Assad initially responded to the unrest, the most serious challenge to his 11-year grip on power, with promises of reform and warnings that the demonstrators were serving a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife.
He granted citizenship to stateless Kurds and lifted a 48-year state of emergency.
However, he also sent the army to crush dissent in Daraa, where people first took to the streets on March 18, and then to other cities, making it clear he would not risk losing the tight control his family has held over Syria for the past 41 years.
A cousin of the president said the Assad family was not going to capitulate.
“We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end ... They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone,” Rami Makhlouf told the New York Times.
Makhlouf, a tycoon in his early 40s who owns several monopolies, and his brother, a secret police chief, have been under specific US sanctions since 2007 for corruption.
Rights campaigner Suhair al-Atassi said a demonstration broke out on Tuesday in Homs, despite a heavy security clampdown, after tanks stormed several neighborhoods on Sunday and three civilians were killed.
“This regime is playing a losing card by sending tanks into cities and besieging them. Syrians have seen the blood of their compatriots spilt. They will never return to being non-persons,” she said.
Demonstrators have shouted the name of Makhlouf as a symbol of graft in a country that has been facing severe water shortages and unemployment ranging from government estimates of 10 percent to independent estimates of 25 percent.
Makhlouf says he is a businessman whose companies provide jobs for thousands of Syrians.
Security forces have released 300 people detained in Banias and restored basic services in the coastal city, which was stormed by tanks last week, a human rights group said.
Water, telecommunications and electricity had been restored, but tanks remained in major streets, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday.
Two hundred people, including pro-democracy protest leaders, were still in jail, it said.
“Scores of those released were severely beaten and subjected to insults,” observatory director Rami Abdelrahman said.