The Syrian regime has arrested some 50 children in the Homs governate after leaflets were distributed amongst local residents expressing support for the Syrian revolution, Orient News has reported.
Local activists told reporters that the minors, aged between 13 and 16, were detained by intelligence services in raids on their homes and schools in the town of Al-Rastan on Tuesday; almost three days later, their current location has still not been disclosed.
Whilst the exact charges are unknown, the arrest campaign comes after leaflets were found near a local mosque expressing support for the opposition group Ahrar Al-Shaam among other factions. It is not clear if the children were responsible for distributing the flyers or if the arrests are an attempt to punish family members who are suspected of publishing the leaflets. Relatives have been informed only that the children are safe, but no timescale has been set for their release.
The latest detentions have prompted fear of further reprisals against local residents, with some expressing a desire to travel to Idlib, the last opposition stronghold, in order to escape what they consider intimidation tactics from Damascus.
The wave of arrests also follows the news that three young men from Al-Rastan previously detained by the government have died in prison, reportedly as a result of torture.
The families of Ayoub Mohammed Ayoub, Mohammed Fadel Ayoub and Khalid Fayez Tlas were instructed to receive the death certificates from the infamous Saydnaya "slaughterhouse" prison. All three men had been arrested during raids at the beginning of the revolution, which saw some 4,500 people detained from Al-Rastan alone.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, some 14,000 people have died under torture in Syria's jails since 2011, 11,000 of whom were at the Saydnaya facility; a further 82,000 have been forcibly disappeared, with their whereabouts still unknown.
Homs was recaptured by the Syrian government of President Bashar Al-Assad with the aid of ally Russia last May, after coming to a reconciliation agreement with opposition fighters, most of whom relocated to the north of the country. Yet despite violating the terms of the negotiation deal, hundreds of residents who remained in the province have found themselves arbitrarily detained.
Even those who were not involved in the fighting have been targeted; last year 11 members of the White Helmets civil defence unit were detained in Al-Rastan on charges of supporting illegal activities.
Activists have noted that the retaliation by the Syrian government against former supporters of the revolution is reminiscent of the action taken by the regime in the earliest days of the Arab Spring; in 2011, the kidnap, torture and murder of 13-year-old Hamza Al-Khateeb from Daraa was the initial spark of nationwide protests.