Syrian forces seal off Banias, tension mounts


AMMAN – Syrian security forces sealed off the coastal city of Banias overnight following pro-democracy protests and killings by irregulars loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, witnesses said on Monday.
In the capital, students demonstrated at Damascus University’s science college, students on the campus said. One activist said he received text messages saying security forces had killed one student and surrounded the campus. But a pro-government Facebook page said security forces “took control of the security breach”, adding that there were no casualties.
Assad, facing unprecedented protests against his 11-year-rule, has responded with a mixture of force and promises to move towards reform, including a possible lifting of nearly five decades of emergency law. 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”, fired at residents with automatic rifles from speeding cars, the witnesses said.
Four people were killed in the mostly Sunni Muslim city on the Mediterranean coast, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Authorities said an armed group had ambushed a patrol near Banias, killing nine soldiers.
Activists and protesters said roads to Banias were blocked. “Electricity has been cut since yesterday. People are very afraid,” Anas al-Shughri, one of the protest leaders, told Reuters from Banias. “The army has deployed in Banias with infantry and they have set up checkpoints in and around the city.”
Assad has said the protests are part of a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife. His father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, used similar language when he crushed leftist and Islamist challenges to his rule in the 1980s, killing thousands.
Civic leaders and opposition figures reject the allegation and issued a declaration last month denouncing sectarianism, committing to non-violent democratic change and stating that Syria’s people “as a whole are under repression”.