Civil war fears rise as tanks bombard Syrian city
More than 250 Syrian tanks and armoured vehicles laid waste to the country's biggest eastern city yesterday, leaving scores of people dead and raising fresh fears of civil war.
Even as the Arab League spoke out against it for the first time, President Bashar al-Assad's regime widened its Ramadan offensive against the increasingly emboldened protest movement seeking to overthrow him.
Activists said at least 41 people were killed in Deir al-Zor, Syria's oil capital, after a vast column of tanks and armoured vehicles advanced on the city before dawn.
A further 19 people were killed in western Syria when tanks shelled the town of Hula in Homs province, bringing the death toll to at least 62.
In taking on Deir al-Zor, one of Syria's most restive cities, Mr Assad is raising the stakes in his battle against the insurrection.
Far more so than in the cosmopolitan region of the west, Deir al-Zor is populated by armed tribesmen. Ironically, they were originally provided with weapons by the state to counter the perceived separatist threat posed by Kurds in neighbouring areas.
The inhabitants of the city have already been prepared to use their weapons, fighting back against regime forces last week after five protesters were killed.
Although it was unclear how much resistance Mr Assad's forces encountered yesterday, the threat of a bloody confrontation that could spiral out of control prompted an unprecedented intervention by the Arab League.
Largely silent until now, the group demanded an immediate end "to acts of violence and campaigns by the security forces against civilians" in Deir al-Zor and in Hama, where more than 100 people were killed last week.
An Arab League appeal for international intervention in Libya laid the ground for Nato's bombing campaign against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, but the movement has been reticent about criticising Mr Assad, a much more important power broker in the region.
Although the Arab League specifically called on the West to stay out of Syria's domestic affairs, its criticism will increase pressure on Mr Assad, who is likely to have interpreted earlier silence as tacit validation or indifference to his brutal suppression of the uprising.
Turkey, which has invested considerable diplomatic capital in recent years in improving once-strained ties with Syria, stepped up its criticism of Mr Assad, warning that Ankara had "run out of patience" with his regime.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, will arrive in Damascus to deliver that message tomorrow. Syrian officials said he would receive a brusque response.
Mr Assad brushed off international criticism as he vowed to press ahead with the assault on Deir el-Zor.
"To deal with outlaws who cut off roads, seal towns and terrorise residents is a duty of the state, which must protect the lives of civilians," he said.
In the oil city itself, streets were deserted as the sound of tank shells and automatic gunfire echoed through the city.
Residents spoke of snipers on the rooftops of hotels and other buildings, picking off any civilians venturing outside.
The mounting death toll in Syria is believed to stand at more than 2,000 since the protests began in mid-March. (© Daily Telegraph, London)