Syrian forces seal off Banias, tension mounts

AMMAN Mon Apr 11, 2011 12:36pm EDT

1 of 8. A tank is seen in the Syrian port city of Banias April 10, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Handout

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AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian security forces sealed off the coastal city of Banias 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. A pro-government Facebook page said security forces "took control of the security breach," adding that there were no casualties.

Syria's universities are controlled through branches of the ruling Baath Party on campuses. A video on the YouTube website showed a crowd of students coming out of Damascus University building while chanting "God, Syria, freedom." A witness said Assad loyalists shouted "U.S. agents" at them.

Assad, facing unprecedented protests against his 11-year-old rule, has responded with a mixture of force and promises to move toward 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, a protest leader, 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, 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."

ALAWITES PROTEST

The ruling family -- Bashar's brother Maher is the second most powerful person in Syria -- belong to the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, which comprises about 10 percent of the country's 20 million population.

"The Alawites, like other minorities living under tyrannical systems, fear the unknown if the regime falls. But this does not mean that they support the violence it is committing," an Alawite human rights lawyer said.

The protests have spread across Syria despite Assad's attempts to defuse resentment by making gestures toward demands for an end to an emergency law and to appease minority Kurds and conservative Sunni Muslims.

At least 90 people in Syria have been killed in mass demonstrations, which first erupted in March to demand the release of schoolchildren who scrawled pro-democracy graffiti on school walls in the southern city of Deraa, and later progressed to calling for freedoms and an end to Assad's rule.

Germany and Britain said the time had come for Assad to deliver on his promised reforms, and to allow peaceful protest.

"A clear demand made of the Syrian government is that... those in the security forces responsible for the deadly shooting of peaceful demonstrators, are held to account," German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said.

Any political change in Syria would have wider repercussions because the ruling Assad family maintains an anti-Israel alliance with Iran and supports the militant Hezbollah and Hamas movements while also seeking a peace deal with the Jewish state.

The West has condemned Syria's use of violence but diplomats say it is unlikely that Syria will face the kind of intervention seen in Libya, unless killings reach the scale of the 1980s.

Then, mostly Alawite forces loyal to the elder Assad attacked the city of Hama to crush an armed uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Up to 30,000 people were killed.

"I am afraid that the security forces in Syria are much more tied to the regime than in Libya. The Syrian protesters are oblivious to the distinct possibility that the ruling elite may not hesitate to kill thousands to hold onto power," a diplomat said.

(Editing by Andrew Dobbie)

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