Shots in Damascus suburb, arrests mount: Activists

AFP , Monday 9 May 2011

Gunfire rang out in a suburb of Damascus Monday as Syrian troops carried out arrests of opponents of President Bashar al-Assad in the coastal town of Banias and other protest hubs, activists said

Protesters burn a photo of Al-Assad (Photo: Reuters)

One activist, declining to be named for security reasons, said that telephone lines to Muadamiya in western Damascus were cut while a witness said the main road to the Damascus suburb had been sealed off.

The source of the gunfire could not immediately be determined.

Amid sweeping arrests of regime opponents, more than 300 people have been rounded up in Banias, based on house-to-house searches using lists of suspects, according to Syrian human rights groups.

"Banias is cut off from the outside world," one activist said.

Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said water, electricity and telephone lines have been cut off in Banias, in northwestern Syria on the Mediterranean coast.

The military said on Sunday that six soldiers, including three officers, were killed in clashes as the army pursued "armed terrorist groups" in Homs, Banias and around the southern town of Daraa -- three protest hubs.

Tanks rumbled into several districts of the central industrial city of Homs and deployed along the corniche in Banias overnight Saturday-Sunday, according to activists.

The military cut electricity and communications before entering several Homs districts that are home to opponents of Assad's regime, an activist said.

Gunfire reverberated in Bab Baba and Sebaa Amr, two districts in the city of one million inhabitants that has been the scene of almost daily demonstrations since anti-regime protests in Syria erupted in mid-March.

Among those arrested in Banias were protest leaders and doctors at a hospital which was circled by the military, the Syrian Observatory said in a statement on Sunday.

Assad, quoted on Monday in Al-Watan newspaper which is close to the government, vowed to press ahead with reforms and forecast the political crisis in Syria was nearing an end.

"The crisis will pass and end, and the question of administrative, political and press reforms will advance," he was quoted as telling a delegation of residents of Syria's main port city of Latakia, north of Banias.

He stressed the need "to consolidate national unity because the nation is the mother of all of us and we need to unite in the face of this plot," referring to Syrian official charges of terrorist gangs and foreign hands behind the unrest.

A 12-year-old boy was among several people killed in Homs on Sunday as Syrian troops hunted down the president's opponents, activists said, despite world anger over the bloody crackdown.

A video posted online at YouTube -- which could not be authenticated -- showed around 20 truckloads of soldiers heading towards a Homs district on Saturday night.

Qassem Zuheir al-Ahmad, 12, was killed by gunfire in the city, where other people also died, said an activist who was unable to specify who shot the boy or give an overall casualty toll.

Al-Watan said the army had also been locked "in a fierce battle against groups using heavy weapons, anti-tank rockets and machine guns" in and around Banias since Friday night.

At least six people were killed in the city on Saturday, four of them women who were protesting for the release of prisoners taken by security forces, an activist said.

The military launched its action in Banias and Homs after ending a 10-day lockdown in which dozens were killed and scores detained in Daraa.

On Sunday, a military spokesman said "units of the army and security forces continue to pursue armed terrorist groups... in Homs, Banias and the outskirts of Daraa," the state news agency SANA reported.

SANA also reported that Syrian 10 labourers returning home from Lebanon were killed in an ambush at dawn on Sunday near Homs.

A member of Syria's banned Socialist Union party told AFP in Beirut he had fled his home outside Damascus after being told by other activists that he would be arrested. "Our society is dominated by fear," said Mujab Assamara, 33.

Rights groups say more than 600 people have been killed and 8,000 jailed or gone missing in the eight-week crackdown on protesters. The Committee of the Martyrs of the 15 March Revolution puts the death toll at 708.

The United States has warned it would take "additional steps" against Syria if it continues its deadly crackdown while the European Union decided on Friday to impose sanctions on 13 Syrian officials.

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