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Syria’s Crackdown on Protesters Escalates, 18 Killed

May 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, an update on Syria, where the crackdown on protests escalated sharply again today. At least 18 people were killed when government tanks opened fire.

Judy Woodruff has our story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The first reports of shelling came from Homs in central Syria. People living there said tanks targeted residential areas, and five people were killed. At least 13 others died outside Daraa in the south.

Up to now, security forces relied on gunfire and snipers to crush the seven-week-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. But in the past week, the army has sealed off towns and villages that were centers of the protests. Maadamiyeh, a suburb of the capital, Damascus, is surrounded, as is Daraa, and the towns of Jassem and al-Harra, where much of today’s shelling occurred. And the city of Banias on the coast is also cut off.

Syrian human rights workers now say more than 770 civilians have been killed in the crackdown. And in recent days, more than 9,000 people have been rounded up around the country. These YouTube pictures appear to show people being detained in Damascus.

British reporter Martin Fletcher witnessed the roundups in Homs, after he got into Syria on a tourist visa.

MARTIN FLETCHER, The Times of London: Quite clearly, the regime have been going around the street of Homs arresting any young man of fighting age and putting him into this and presumably other detention centers.

And I was held for about six hours. And during that time, regularly — at regular intervals, young men were brought in like that. Some of them were literally whimpering with fear. Others were quite defiant. But it gave me a glimpse of the — the lengths to which this regime is going to suppress this insurrection.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another journalist, Al-Jazeera’s Dorothy Parvaz, was detained at the Damascus Airport in late April. She holds American, Canadian and Iranian citizenship, and has reportedly been sent to Iran and imprisoned there.

Today, President Assad told a Syrian newspaper he will work to resolve the issue of detainees jailed during the unrest. He also urged Syrians to cooperate with the government so reforms can be made.

But U.N. Secretary-Gen. Ban Ki-Moon urged Assad again to stop using excessive force.

And, in Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney condemned today’s tank attacks on protesters.

JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: One, it is abhorrent to use violence in any form against peaceful protesters and against unarmed citizens, your own citizens. But, two, if what they seek is stability, they are sowing the seeds of more instability by doing what they’re doing. And — and we strongly condemn that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, just yesterday, President Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, warned, the regime will not back down. Makhlouf is one of Syria’s most powerful businessmen and told The New York Times — quote — “If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel. Nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.”

In the meantime, the European Union Monday imposed sanctions on 13 members of Syria’s ruling elite, but not Assad himself. Now Germany and several other European nations are calling in Syrian ambassadors and threatening additional sanctions, unless the crackdown ends.