AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian security forces stormed a town near the city of Banias on Tuesday, activists said, in an operation aimed at quelling unrest that has spread across the country and challenged the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
Assad has responded to the mass protests, now in their fourth week, with force, pledges of reform and attempts to appease minority Kurds and conservative Sunnis. But the unprecedented calls for more freedoms have yet to abate.
The activists said Syrian secret police and soldiers had surrounded the town of Baida, 10 km (six miles) south of Banias, which security forces had sealed off on Sunday after pro-democracy protests and an attack by irregular forces loyal to Assad on people guarding a Sunni mosque.
Four people were killed in shootings later in the day, which has raised tensions in the mostly Sunni Muslim country ruled by minority Alawites, adherents to an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
One activist said some residents of Baida, which is near the Mediterranean coast, had weapons and it appeared that an armed confrontation had erupted.
A Banias resident in touch with people in Baida said armored vehicles entered the town and soldiers "opened fire haphazardly," adding that young men were being dragged out of their homes and arrested.
DEATH TOLL REACHES 200
Syria is the latest Arab country shaken by uprisings against authoritarian rulers, but the scale of protests has not reached the levels in Tunisia and Egypt, where leaders were overthrown. Central Damascus and Aleppo, Syria's second city, have not witnessed mass demonstrations.
Syria's main human rights movement said the death toll from pro-democracy protests had reached 200 and urged the Arab League to impose sanctions on the ruling hierarchy.
"Syria's uprising is screaming with 200 martyrs, hundreds of injured and a similar number of arrests," the Damascus Declaration group said in a letter sent on Monday to the secretary general of the Arab League.
The Damascus Declaration is named after a document signed in 2005 by civic, Islamist and liberal leaders calling for the end of 41 years of Assad family rule and its replacement with a democratic system.
"The regime unleashes its forces to besiege cities and terrorize civilians, while protesters across Syria thunder with the same chant 'peaceful, peaceful'," it added.
"We ask you to ... impose political, diplomatic and economic sanctions on the Syrian regime, which continues to be the faithful guardian of Hafez al-Assad's legacy," the letter said, referring to the iron-fisted rule of the president's father, Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000 after 30 years in power.
"RESPONDING WITH REPRESSION"
Authorities blame "armed groups" and "infiltrators" for the violence, in which they say soldiers and police have also been killed. On Tuesday, state news agency SANA named six security service personnel it said had been killed and 168 wounded in Deraa, suburbs of Damascus, Homs and Latakia.
Last Friday was one of the deadliest since the uprising began last month in Deraa, an agricultural city near the border with Jordan where many Sunni Muslim tribes resent the wealth and power amassed by minority Alawites.
Human Rights Watch said 27 people had been killed in Deraa, and condemned Syria's security forces for preventing wounded protesters reaching hospitals and stopping medical teams from treating them in two towns.
It said protesters told the rights group that demonstrators seized weapons from an abandoned army checkpoint and shot at security forces, killing at least a dozen of them and setting on fire two cars belonging to the army and security services.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States was deeply concerned by reports that wounded Syrians were denied access to medical care.
"The escalating repression by the Syrian government is outrageous, and the United States strongly condemns the continued efforts to suppress peaceful protesters," Carney said.
Western governments have been trying to coax Syria out of its anti-Israeli alliance with Iran as well as to give up its support for militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah. They have denounced violence against protesters and urged Assad to take more steps toward reforms such as lifting emergency law.
"Time is running out as every new casualty makes the clock tick faster," said the International Crisis Group's Peter Harling on the Foreign Policy blog.
"To open the space required for a radical reform agenda to take hold, the regime's top priority must be to ensure a period of relative calm. Prospects will look grim were the country to witness yet another bloody Friday," he said, describing Syria as a "slow-motion revolution."
Assad has said the protests are part of a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife. Syria's ally Iran said the protests were not a spontaneous event but the result of Western interference.
Since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, authorities have intensified a campaign of arrests against dissidents and activists. Authorities generally embark on a round of arrests after protests, according to activists and witnesses, before later releasing some.
Fayez Sara, a journalist who was jailed for two-and-a-half years along with 11 Damascus Declaration members and released in 2010, was arrested again on Sunday, rights activists said.
"The secret police have been rounding up every outspoken figure they can get their hands on. They either call them in for 'interrogation' and keep them, pick them up from the street or break into their homes," one of the rights defenders said.
(Additional reporting by Hossein Jaseb in Tehran; writing by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; editing by Andrew Roche)