Syrian forces seal off Banias as sectarian tension mounts

Witness says 4 protesters killed in Banias; 1 soldier dies in ambush on army patrol; death toll from weekend protests reaches 42.

April 11, 2011 10:42
4 minute read.
Syrians demonstrate after Friday prayers, Latakia.

syrian protests_311 reuters. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ho New)


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AMMAN - Syrian security forces sealed off the coastal city of Banias overnight following sectarian killings by irregulars loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, witnesses said on Monday.

Violence in Banias, home to one of Syria's two oil refineries, erupted on Sunday when irregulars from the ruling Alawite minority, known as "shabbiha," or "ghosts," fired at residents with automatic rifles from speeding cars, following pro-democracy protests in the mostly Sunni Mediterranean city.


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Another rights activist confirmed roads to the town were blocked.

At least three people were killed, a human rights activist in the city told Reuters. The authorities said an armed group had ambushed a patrol near Banias, killing nine soldiers.

An official Syrian source Sunday said an "armed group" had ambushed an army patrol in the city of Banias, killing one soldier and wounding others, according to the official SANA news agency.

The source said the incident took place on the Latakia-Tartous road where the "armed group" was "hiding to the east of the road between the trees and buildings".

The ambush came after irregular forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired at a group of people guarding a mosque as pro-democracy unrest flared in Banias, two witnesses said.

Tanks fanned out overnight in the city (an archeological site by the same name is located in the Golan Heights) in an intensification of the four-week long disturbances that have left at least 90 dead.

A doctor and a university professor said a group was guarding Banias's Sunni Abu Bakr al-Siddiq mosque with sticks during morning prayers when irregulars from Syria's ruling Alawite minority fired at them with automatic rifles from speeding cars. Five people were injured, including a 47-year-old man who was hit in the chest, they told Reuters.

The attack followed a demonstration of some 2,000 people in Banias on Friday, as protesters shouted "the people want the overthrow of the regime" -- the rallying cry of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions that have inspired growing protests across Syria against decades of Alawite domination.

"Four people were hit in the feet and legs. The fifth sustained the most serious injury, an AK-47 bullet that went through his left chest lateral," said the doctor, who was at the scene.

"The regime is trying to show that this is a Sunni-Alawite issue, but the Sunni people of Banias know that only a minority of thugs are cooperating with them," said the other witness. "Banias is a city of 50,000 people. We all know each other, and for sure we would know if there were infiltrators," he said, adding that Syrian state television was the only media allowed in Banias, similar to other flashpoints across the country.

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Residents said earlier that tanks had deployed near the Banias oil refinery -- one of two in Syria -- near the Alawite district of Qusour, where its main hospital is located.

In the Houla area of the central province of Homs, north of Damascus, buses were also seen unloading security personnel. A decision by Assad several days ago to sack the governor of Homs has failed to placate protesters. Witnesses said on Saturday security forces had used live ammunition and tear gas to scatter thousands of mourners in Deraa, where protests first erupted in March, after a mass funeral for protesters killed on Friday.

A statement on its website on Sunday listed the names of 26 people killed in Deraa and two in Homs, and also provided the names of 13 people arrested over the last 10 days.

Syria has prevented news media from reporting from Deraa and mobile phones lines there appeared to be cut.

Assad, a member of the Alawite sect that comprises 10 percent of Syria's population, has used the secret police, special police units, irregular loyalist forces and loyalist army units to counter the extraordinary grassroots revolt.

He has blended the use of force -- activists and witnesses say his forces have fired at unarmed demonstrators, killing dozens -- with gestures such as a pledge to replace an emergency law in force for five decades with an anti-terrorism law.

Assad has said the protests are serving a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife, similar language his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, used when he crushed leftist and Islamist challenges to his rule in the 1980s, killing thousands.

In a meeting with the Bulgarian foreign minister, Assad said Syria was "on the path of comprehensive reform and was open to benefit from the expertise and experiences of European countries," according to the official SANA news agency. staff contributed to this report.

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