The Syrian military intensified a methodical, ferocious march across the country's most restive locales Wednesday, shelling the country's third-largest city from tanks, forcing hundreds to flee and detaining hundreds more in what has emerged as one of the most brutal waves of repression since the Arab Spring began.
Homshas become the latest target of the crackdown, which has already besieged and silenced, for now, the cities of Daraa and Banias. Dozens of tanks occupied Homs as black-clad security forces, soldiers and militiamen in plain clothes filtered through the industrial city of 1.5 million people. At least 19 people were killed there Wednesday, human rights groups said.
The crackdown in some neighborhoods alternated with the relative calm in the center of a city that is home to a Sunni Muslim majority and a Christian minority.
"We see the smoke rising in the sky after we hear the shells explode," said Abu Haydar, a resident reached by telephone. "The sky was pretty quickly covered in smoke."
In public statements and interviews, the government has acknowledged the crackdown, describing the military's targets as militant Islamists and saboteurs. It said nearly 100 soldiers and members of the security forces had been killed, and U.S. officials say that some protesters have indeed taken up arms.
In Washington, the New York Times reported, two Obama administration officials said that the United States still did not see a clear or organized opposition or another leader in Syria who could serve to unite the foes of the government of President Bashar Assad.
According to the Times, one administration official said that some national security officials were hoping that even if Assad stayed in power, he would move away from the alliance with Iran because so many of the Sunni protesters wanted to see an end to that alliance. But he said the administration remained divided about whether Assad would actually make a break from Iran.
The Syrian news agency, which has portrayed the crackdown as the response to an armed uprising, said two soldiers were killed and nine were wounded in Homs and Daraa.
But the sheer scope of the crackdown - along a crescent that runs from the coast to the border with Jordan - suggests a leadership willing to bring to bear the full force of its feared security forces, as it tries to navigate perhaps the greatest challenge to four decades of rule by the Assad family. In the past week, the government has sought to prove it has the upper hand in a conflict that has rivaled the bloodshed in Libya, now mired in what resembles a civil war.
The Syrian government said it had formed a commission Wednesday to draft a law to govern general elections, but critics called it a largely cosmetic step by a government in survival mode. An economy that the government has sought to modernize is reeling from the unrest, residents say, and critics warn that the government is sowing the seeds for more violence with the breadth of the killings, detentions and torture it has administered. More than 750 people have been killed and thousands detained since the uprising began in mid March.
The shelling in Homs singled out two neighborhoods, Bab Amr and Aldubiyeh, both of which have witnessed persistent protests against the 11-year rule of Assad. Checkpoints proliferated across the city, and hundreds of residents were said to be fleeing.
Residents in Homs said that the shelling was most intense between 5 and 7 a.m. and that no one was allowed in or out of the neighborhoods, not even to collect bodies. Pharmacies and grocery stores were the only shops open there. The New York Times reported that activists said ambulances were banned from entering, forcing people to treat the wounded in their homes.
Wissam Tarif, executive director of Insan, a Syrian human rights group, said 500 people were detained there in the past 36 hours, and residents reported that many of them were being held in a soccer stadium and a school in the city.
"It is one of the worst days," Tarif said. "They're taking everyone, basically."
Abu Omar, a resident who fled Wednesday across the Syria-Lebanon border, painted a portrait of some neighborhoods in a state of terror, administered by the security forces and plainclothes militiamen wearing bracelets to identify themselves. He said that they had lists of people who had taken part in the protests and that they were going house to house to detain them.
"It's misery there," he said. "Many houses were wrecked, especially those that belonged to people who participated in the demonstrations. They're taking revenge."
By nightfall, Syrian television declared the operations in Homs over and, on the news scroll, said that residents had showered soldiers "with roses and rice."
The military also deployed tanks in Hara, a town near Daraa where demonstrations galvanized the unrest in mid March. Tarif's group said eight people had been killed there and many had been wounded, although he had no precise number.
At least 360 people were reported to have been detained in Maadamiya and other towns on the outskirts of Damascus, joining an estimated 10,000 still in custody.
"When they go back to normalization - and they're not thinking about it yet - can they leave the army and the security forces in the streets forever?" Tarif asked. "The minute they pull back, people are going to go back into the streets. This will eventually explode again."
Banias, where military forces spread through the city, was relatively quiet, a resident there who identified himself as Abu Obaida said by telephone. Although electricity and water had been restored, telephone land lines were still cut, he said, and residents faced food shortages. Residents said gunfire could still be heard in the hills and countryside outside the town.
A tense calm has also descended on Daraa, which was besieged last month.
Missing Al Jazeera reporter sent to Iran
A reporter for Al Jazeera's English-language news channel who disappeared while covering the uprising in Syria almost two weeks ago was sent to Iran within two days of being detained by Syrian authorities, the network confirmed Wednesday.
Al Jazeera has sought information from the Syrian government on the whereabouts and condition of the reporter, Dorothy Parvaz, since losing contact with her April 29, shortly after she arrived in the Syrian capital, Damascus, from Qatar. Five days later, Syrian officials said she was being held in the capital. The network said officials told them that she would be released.
But Tuesday, the Syrian Embassy in Washington told Al Jazeera that Parvaz was deported on a flight to Tehran on May 1, according to a spokesman for the network, Osama Saeed. She appears to have been in Iranian custody since that time. Saeed said the network had gotten no official confirmation from the Iranian authorities.