Syrian tanks deployed overnight in flashpoint areas, residents said today, in an effort to prevent further outbreaks of pro-democracy unrest, intensifying a crackdown on mass protests now in their fourth week.
Once-unthinkable public dissent challenging President Bashar al-Assad's authoritarian rule has spread across Syria despite his attempts to defuse resentment by making some gestures towards reform in the tightly-controlled country of 20 million.
Witnesses said on Saturday security forces had used live ammunition and tear gas to scatter thousands of mourners in the southern city of Deraa, where protests first erupted in March, after a mass funeral for protesters killed on Friday.
The mourners had assembled near the old Omari mosque in the old quarter of Deraa, a mostly Sunni Muslim city where resentment against minority Alawite rule runs high.
Syrian security forces later deployed overnight in the Mediterranean coastal city of Banias, home to one of Syria's two oil refineries.
Several tanks were seen in the northern district of the conservative city where protests intensified as Assad used increasing force to quell demonstrations in the south.
The uprising against 48 years of monolithic Baathist rule erupted more than three weeks ago in the south and protesters destroyed statues of Assad's family members.
Heavy gunfire was heard but there were no confirmed reports of casualties. Telephone connections were cut, activists said.
In the Houla area of the central province of Homs, north of Damascus, buses were also seen unloading security personnel. A decision by Assad several days ago to sack the governor of Homs has failed to placate protesters.
The National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria said 26 protesters were killed in Deraa on Friday, after earlier reporting the deaths had occurred on Saturday.
A statement on its website on Sunday listed the names of 26 people killed in Deraa and two in Homs, and also provided the names of 13 people arrested over the last 10 days.
Syria has prevented news media from reporting from Deraa and mobile phones lines there appeared to be cut.
Assad, a member of the Alawite sect that comprises 10 percent of Syria's population, has used the secret police, special police units, irregular loyalist forces and loyalist army units to counter the extraordinary grassroots revolt.
He has blended the use of force - activists and witnesses say his forces have fired at unarmed demonstrators, killing dozens - with gestures such as a pledge to replace an emergency law in force for five decades with an anti-terrorism law.
Emergency law has given free rein to security organs to stamp out public protests, and managed to throttle it for decades before a tide of pro-democracy unrest spilled into Syria from Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world this year.
"The regime is using more violence in Deraa because it thinks that the response of the local population can be contained," Syrian political commentator Ayman Abdel Nour said.
"Make no mistake about the nature of the Syrian regime. Its strategy in dealing with the protests across Syria is down to one man who makes all the decisions: Bashar al-Assad," he told Reuters.
Assad has said the protests are serving a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife, similar language his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, used when he crushed leftist and Islamist challenges to his rule in the 1980s, killing thousands.
On Friday, rallies swept Syria, from Latakia in the west to Albu Kamal on the east, emboldened by the popular upheaval that ousted the autocratic presidents of Tunisia and Egypt.
A Syrian rights group said at least 37 people had been killed in protests across the country on Friday.
State television said armed groups had killed 19 policemen and wounded 75 in the city. The Interior Ministry warned it would not tolerate breaches of the law and would deal with "armed groups", whom it has always blamed for the unrest.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told Assad in a telephone call "he was greatly disturbed by the latest reports of violence against protesters," a UN statement said.
A witness in Deraa on Saturday said he had seen at least four youths wounded by snipers being taken by protesters to a nearby clinic.
Residents say people avoid taking many of the wounded to state-run hospitals for fear the injured will be arrested by plainclothes security personnel stationed in those hospitals.
In the early hours of Saturday, security forces also used live ammunition to drive away hundreds of people in Latakia, causing scores of injuries and possible deaths, residents said.
One witness said he had seen water trucks washing blood off the streets near Takhasussieh School in the Sleibeh district.
"You can't go two steps on the street without risking arrest," a resident said. "It's difficult to know if there were deaths, but we heard heavy AK-47 fire."
A central demand of the protesters is the repeal of emergency laws imposed by the Baath party after it took power in a coup in 1963 and banned all opposition.
Assad ordered a committee to look into replacing them with anti-terrorism legislation, but critics say this will probably grant the state many of the same repressive powers.
He has also granted stateless Kurds citizenship in the eastern al-Hasaka region. But Kurdish leaders have said they will continue their non-violent struggle for civil rights and democracy.Reuse content