Cairo — Syrian security forces arrested more than 200 people early Sunday — including a 10-year-old boy — as President Bashar al-Assad expands a campaign to crush the country's seven-week, nationwide uprising, activists said.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said more than 200 people were picked up overnight in Banias, a key oil-industry city on the Mediterranean coast where some of the largest protests have been held. On Saturday, troops in tanks and armored vehicles rolled in and sealed off the city.
A 10-year-old was among those taken into custody, Abdul-Rahman said.
"It appears to be designed to punish his parents," he told The Associated Press, adding that water, electricity and nearly all forms of communication to the city have been cut.
Another activist getting witness reports said three more people have been reported dead there since Saturday, bringing the two-day death toll in Banias to six. The activist declined to be named for safety reasons.
The uprising in Syria was sparked in mid-March by the arrest of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall in the southern city of Deraa.
Protests inspired by uprisings sweeping the Arab World spread quickly across the nation of some 23 million people.
More than 580 civilians and 100 soldiers have been killed since the revolt began, rights groups say.
The events in Banias, after security forces killed 30 people in nationwide protests on Friday, came on the heels of a large-scale military operation in Deraa. The 11-day siege, in which about 50 residents were killed, triggered international outrage and condemnation.
Banias, which is home to one of the country's two oil refineries and is the main point of export for Syrian oil, has a potentially explosive mix of religious groups and sects. It is predominantly Sunni Muslim but is also home to many Alawites — the sect of the ruling Assad family and many senior officials. It also has a large power station.
Syrian officials and state-run media have tried to portray Banias as a hotbed of Islamic extremists to justify the regime's crackdown. The state news agency SANA said the army and security forces were pursuing fugitives in Banias and were able to arrest a large number of them and confiscate their weapons.
On Sunday, SANA said Syrian authorities have seized sophisticated weapons and that the army is still hunting down "armed terrorist groups" across the country, including in Banias.
The US has already imposed sanctions on three top Syrian officials as well as Syria's intelligence agency and Iran's Revolutionary Guard over the crackdown. The European Union is expected to place sanctions on Syrian officials next week, and the UN said Saturday it is sending a team into Syria to investigate the situation.
An operation in Banias similar to the one in Deraa, where the uprising began, risks further isolating Assad's regime, which has used brutal military force to crush the unprecedented revolt against his family's 40-year dynasty.
Details of the troop deployment in Banias, for weeks the scene of demonstrations demanding regime change, were scarce as phone lines and other communication with the area were mostly cut off.