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Soldiers die in ambush as Syria protests spread to coast

Nine Syrian soldiers were killed in an ambush near the port city of Banias, state TV reported, and witnesses reported four protesters being shot dead in the city by security forces and pro-government gunmen.

The Syrian army sealed off the city where anti-government protesters, undaunted by the regime's use of force to quell more than three weeks of unrest, appeared on the streets

Details were sketchy as phone lines, internet access and electricity were cut in the area. But one witness, reached by telephone, said hundreds of protesters had gathered near the al-Rahman mosque when security forces and armed men in civilian clothes opened fire on them. The names of the dead were read out on mosque loudspeakers. Tanks and soldiers circled the city, preventing people from entering.

Protests erupted in Syria more than three weeks ago and have been growing steadily every week, with tens of thousands of people calling for sweeping reforms in President Bashar Assad's regime. More than 170 people have been killed. The government blames the violence on armed gangs and has vowed to crush further unrest. Mr Assad said yesterday that the country was "moving ahead on the road of comprehensive reforms," the state-run news agency SANA said. In recent weeks, Mr Assad has answered the protesters with both force and limited concessions that have failed to appease an emboldened movement inspired by the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Several other human rights activists, also citing witnesses, reported shooting in Banias on Sunday. "There are demonstrations throughout the city and people are chanting against the regime," said Haitham al-Maleh, an 80-year-old lawyer and rights activist who spent years as a political prisoner in Syria. The accounts could not be independently confirmed. The government has severe restrictions on news coverage.

A key demand of protesters is an end to a decades-old emergency law that gives the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge. But Mr Assad has stopped well short of the protesters' demands. Instead, he has promised to form committees to look into reform. Other gestures include granting citizenship to thousands of Kurds, and sacking his cabinet.