Tanks storm Syrian flashpoint city Banias

AFP , Saturday 7 May 2011

Syrian tanks stormed flashpoint Banias city on Saturday, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ignored growing world outrage to press a violent crackdown on anti-regime protesters

The military assault came after Syrian security forces shot dead at least 26 protesters Friday during a huge "Day of Defiance" against the regime, according to a toll given by rights groups.

Rights activists reached by telephone from Nicosia said residents of Banias, in northwestern Syria on the Mediterranean coast, formed human chains in a bid to halt the military operation when it began very early Saturday.

Electricity and communications were cut as the tanks entered along three axes heading towards the southern sector of the city, the bastion of anti-regime protesters, the sources said.

Tanks also encircled the nearby town of Baida while an army boat patrolled offshore, they added.

The military sweep into Banias comes two days after a convoy of 40 military vehicles pulled out of the southern town of Daraa, another protest centre, which the military had locked down since April 25.

On Wednesday, residents of Banias said dozens of armoured vehicles, including tanks and troops reinforcements, had been deployed on the outskirts of Banias.
"It looks like they are preparing to attack the town, like they did in Daraa," one activist said.

Dozens of people were killed during the 10-day military assault on Daraa, launched with what activists termed "indiscriminate" shelling of the town.

But General Riad Haddad, the military's political department chief, insisted that troops in Daraa "did not confront the protesters. We continue searching for terrorists hidden in several places. As the army, we never confronted the protesters."

Human rights groups say that more than 600 people have been killed and 8,000 jailed or gone missing in the crackdown on protesters since demonstrations erupted in mid-March.

The United States warned it would take "additional steps" against Syria if it continues its brutal crackdown on protesters, a week after imposing tough sanctions on the Arab nation.

"The United States believes that Syria's deplorable actions toward its people warrant a strong international response," the White House said in one of its strongest statements yet since the outbreak of unrest in the Arab state.

It warned that unless Assad's government halted its repression of peaceful pro-democracy protests, "the United States and its international partners will take additional steps to make clear our strong opposition to the Syrian government’s treatment of its people."

It also welcomed the European Union's decision to impose sanctions on Syrian officials "responsible for human rights abuses."

The EU on Friday agreed to impose sanctions on 13 Syrian officials involved in the regime's brutal crackdown on protests and will meet Monday to discuss whether to target Assad as well, diplomats said.

The Syrian rights group, Insan, put Friday's toll at 26 killed.

The toll included 16 protesters killed in the central city of Homs, six in Hama, north of Damascus, two in Jableh on the Mediterranean and another two for which it gave no details.

The military announced that 10 soldiers and policemen were killed in Homs by "armed terrorist groups", and said the bodies of some of them were mutilated by the assailants.

As the crackdown continues, prominent dissident and former MP Riad Seif, 64, was arrested in Damascus, the London-based Observatory reported on Friday. Amnesty International said he was seized while leaving a mosque.

Seif had been imprisoned twice since 2001, serving in total more than seven years in jail for seeking reforms and constitutional changes in autocratic Syria.

According to Amnesty "human rights activists involved in pro-reform protest in Syria have been forced into hiding after receiving threats from Syrian authorities."

The Syrian Revolution 2011, a Facebook group that has been a driving force of the protests, had called for the "Day of Defiance" demonstrations on Friday, saying "Liberty is close."

Tens of thousands rallied across the country, including in the Kurdish areas of Amuda and Derbassiye in northeast Syria, in the coastal city of Banias, Kafar Nubbol in the north, Al-Bukamal near the border with Iraq and in Deir Ezzor in the east, activists said.

Thousands also swarmed Saqba, near Damascus, where 300 people were rounded up on Thursday.

In a concession that failed to dampen the protest movement, Assad decreed an end to five decades of emergency rule on April 21, but his forces have continued to use deadly force and carry out arbitrary detentions.

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