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Syrian forces raid homes, hold protesters

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Syrian security forces arrested hundreds of activists and anti-government protesters in house-to-house raids across the country yesterday, part of an escalating government crackdown aimed at stamping out a revolt engulfing the country.

The punishing response triggered new international sanctions yesterday, as the European Union imposed an arms embargo. The measure, which followed U.S. sanctions, also prohibits 13 Syrian government officials from traveling anywhere in the 27-nation EU and freezes their assets.

President Bashar Assad has sent army troops and tanks to crush the seven-week uprising that has posed the most serious challenge to his family's 40-year rule. Assad's regime appears determined to crush the uprising by force and intimidation, despite the rapidly growing international outrage and a death toll that has topped 630 civilians since the unrest began, according to rights groups.

Yesterday's arrests, which zeroed in on the protests' organizers and participants, were focused in four areas: the central city of Homs, the coastal city of Banias, some suburbs of the capital, Damascus, and villages around the southern flash point city of Daraa, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

He and other activists said the crackle of gunfire could be heard in the Damascus suburb of Maadamiyeh. Activists said security forces redeployed in the town yesterday after a brief withdrawal the day before, closing all roads leading in.

The area, scene of large demonstrations, was without electricity, communication or water, the activists said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. Residents also said several tanks were in the town.

By early afternoon, scores of women were demonstrating in Banias, demanding the release of hundreds of detained men who were being held at the city's soccer stadium, Abdul-Rahman said. He added that security officers promised the women that all men older than 40 would be freed.

In an indication that the regime shows no sign of folding, Assad was quoted as saying in comments published yesterday that "the current crisis in Syria will be overcome and that the process of administrative, political and media reforms are continuing."

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