Syria expands its crackdown

Assad’s troops move into oil port

In this photo, taken on a mobile phone by a citizen journalist, antigovernment protesters demonstrated in Banias on Friday. Syrian troops took up positions in the coastal town yesterday. In this photo, taken on a mobile phone by a citizen journalist, antigovernment protesters demonstrated in Banias on Friday. Syrian troops took up positions in the coastal town yesterday. (Associated Press)
By Zeina Karam
Associated Press / May 8, 2011

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BEIRUT — Troops in tanks and armored vehicles entered a key oil-industry city on Syria’s Mediterranean coast yesterday, taking up position in a hilltop Crusader castle and cutting off power and phone lines. An activist said three women protesting the crackdown were shot dead.

The move against Banias, which had become a bastion of antiregime protests in recent days, signals an expanding campaign by President Bashar Assad aimed at crushing the country’s seven-week nationwide uprising.

Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights said the women were protesting the siege and the cutting of power when they were shot by plainclothes security forces or pro-government gunmen.

Yesterday’s shooting occurred near al-Marqab, about a mile southeast of Banias.

The events in Banias, a day after security forces killed 30 people in nationwide protests, came on the heels of a large-scale military operation in Daraa. The 11-day siege, in which about 50 residents were killed, triggered international condemnation.

The United States has already targeted three top Syrian officials as well as Syria’s intelligence agency and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard with sanctions over the crackdown. The European Union is expected to place sanctions on Syrian officials next week, and the United Nations said it will investigate.

An operation in Banias similar to the one in Daraa risks further isolating Assad’s regime, which has used brutal military force to crush the revolt.

Details of the troop deployment in Banias were scarce as communications with the area were mostly cut off. But an eyewitness reached by the Associated Press said soldiers deployed in Banias early yesterday on tanks and armored vehicles.

He said tanks moved into the seaside area and were stationed in at least three Sunni villages south of Banias. Soldiers were carrying out house-to-house searches and arrests in al-Marqab district and in two villages, claiming to be looking for weapons and terrorist fugitives.

The witness and activists said the army is now occupying the hilltop Marqab Castle, an 11th-century Crusader fortress overlooking Banias. Several gunboats were seen off the coast.

“Banias is now surrounded from all directions, not a single person can go in or out,’’ said the resident, who did not wish to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Banias has a potentially explosive mix of religious groups and sects. It is predominantly Sunni Muslim, but is also home to many Alawites — the sect of the ruling Assad family and many senior officials.

Syrian officials and state-run media have tried to portray Banias as a hotbed of Islamic extremists to justify its crackdown.

On Friday, witnesses said several thousand people held a protest in Banias calling for regime change.

Elsewhere, up to 20,000 people took part in the funerals yesterday of seven people killed the previous day in Homs.

In the Damascus suburb of Saqba, some 3,000 people took part in a funeral for a man reportedly shot to death by security forces at a checkpoint as he rode a motorcycle following a protest.

One demonstrator was killed and 11 injured yesterday in the southern Yemen town of al-Maafir when police descended on thousands rallying for the ouster of Yemen’s longtime president, an activist said.

Nouh al-Wafi said police fired tear gas and live ammunition to disperse protesters. The demonstrators were mainly students but other residents joined.

In several other cities — including Aden, Saada, and Hodeida — protesters observed a one-day shutdown of offices and businesses yesterday as part of the civil disobedience campaign called by the opposition to pressure President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Thousands of people also demonstrated in Ibb and Hadramawt, the latest in daily protests that have been staged for almost three months. top stories on Twitter

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