Syrian security forces arrested scores of people on Monday in two restive cities where President Bashar Assad has sent troops to crush a seven-week-old revolt against his authoritarian rule, a human rights group said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said people were detained in the central city of Homs and in Banias on the Mediterranean coast -- the latest focus of Assad's escalated crackdown against protesters, as well as other regions.
"Across Syria it has continued today, swelling the numbers (of detainees), which are already in the thousands," a spokesman for the group said.
Syria's upheaval began on March 18 when protesters, inspired by revolts across the Arab world, marched in the southern city of Deraa. Assad initially responded with vague promises of reform, and last month lifted a 48-year-old state of emergency.
But when the protests persisted he sent the army to crush public dissent, first in Deraa and then to other cities, making clear he would not risk losing the tight control his family has held over Syria for the past 41 years.
The Syrian Observatory says 621 civilians and 120 soldiers and security personnel have been killed since demonstrations first broke out. Another Syrian rights group, Sawasiah, says more than 800 civilians have been killed.
A Western diplomat last week estimated around 7,000 people had been detained, but the Observatory said another 400 and 500 were taken into custody since then in Baniyas alone.
A Homs resident said he heard scattered shooting overnight but that the city, where the Syrian Observatory reported three people were killed on Sunday, was quieter on Monday.
Until the uprising began, Assad had been emerging from a period of Western isolation imposed because of Syria's support for militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas and its informal anti-Israel alliance with Israel. The United States had also accused Syria of allowing militants into Iraq to support the insurgency against U.S. and Iraqi forces there.
Washington announced new sanctions against Syrian figures last month while the European Union last week agreed to impose asset freezes and travel restrictions against up to 14 Syrian officials it said were responsible for the violent repression.
But analysts say sanctions alone are unlikely to deter Syrian authorities from using force to quell the unrest.
In the south, tanks swept into several towns on Sunday. A man was killed when security forces smashed their way into his home in the southern town of Tafas, a rights campaigner said.
Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Egypt's highest Islamic authority, al-Azhar, was quoted by the state newspaper Al Ahram as calling on Assad to "stop shedding the blood of his people,
cease attacks on civilians and end the siege his forces are imposing around a number of Syrian cities".
Protesters are demanding political freedoms, an end to corruption and the departure of Assad, and deny his assertion that they are part of a foreign conspiracy determined to cause
Syrian authorities have blamed the nearly two months of protests on "armed terrorist groups" they say are operating in Deraa, Baniyas, Homs and other parts of the country.
The official state news agency SANA said on Sunday an 'armed gang' had ambushed a bus near Homs and shot dead 10 civilian workers returning from Lebanon.
It also said on Sunday six soldiers were killed around Deraa, Homs and Baniyas in clashes with armed groups. "A number of terrorists were killed and wounded. Dozens of others were arrested and a big quantity of weapons and ammunitions were confiscated," SANA quoted a military source as saying.
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