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Syria Intensifies Crackdown Amid Calls for New Protest

In this citizen journalism image made on a mobile phone and acquired by the AP, taken on Friday, May 6, 2011, Syrian anti-government protesters carry a banner during a rally in the central city of Homs, Syria

Witnesses report hearing shots in the Damascus suburb of Maadamiyeh Tuesday, as the government intensifies a crackdown against opposition protesters.

President Bashar al-Assad has dispatched troops and tanks to many areas to crush the seven-week uprising that poses the most serious challenge to his family's 40-year rule. The government appears determined to crush the uprising, despite rapidly growing international outrage.

The Damascus suburb of Maadamiyeh has has been sealed off for days. Telecommunications have been cut and checkpoints were preventing anyone from entering or leaving the area.

Media reports say security forces entered a number of villages surrounding the southern flashpoint city of Daraa, as well, and that tanks were seen heading north from the flashpoint city of Homs to the nearby city of Hama, 50 kilometers north.

Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch in Beirut says that security forces have been stepping up arrests of opposition activists recently, especially in flashpoint towns and cities.

"The efforts by the security forces have been magnified over the last few weeks: wide arrest campaigns in particular towns that have been pretty active in anti-government protests, places like Banias, like Zabadani, like Homs, and in those places, in some areas wider arrests, sort of door-to-door, arresting young men up to the age of 50-55, detain them for a few days and sometimes releasing some but keeping others in detention," Houry said.

Details of events in Syria have become increasingly sparse as more activists are arrested or forced into hiding. Syrian Human Rights groups complain that authorities are clamping down on communications from activists inside the country, both via the Internet and satellite telephone.

Meanwhile, Syrian opposition groups are calling for popular protests to take place on a daily basis. It was not clear, however, if the protest movement would be able to maintain its momentum, amid the government crackdown.

A non-violent sit-in late Monday in Damascus’ Anous Square was broken up by security forces and many protesters were arrested. Video footage of the arrests appears to show security forces beating up some protesters after they were arrested.

Syrian government television says that the protest movement is “a plot being orchestrated from outside the country.” It showed images of funerals of army soldiers and claimed that they had been killed by “armed terrorists.”

Meanwhile, the European Union announced an embargo Tuesday on exports to Syria of arms and equipment that could be used for internal repression.

The EU also imposed a visa ban and asset freeze on 13 officials and associates of the Syrian regime identified as being "responsible for the violent repression against the civilian population."

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