AMMAN (Reuters) - At least five civilians were killed on Saturday when Syrian forces shelled the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, an activists’ group said, in the latest attempt by authorities to crush protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
The group, the Syrian Revolution Coordination Union, said 57 soldiers in Deir al-Zor, including two lieutenants and a captain, had defected to the demonstrators. It said residents had formed local committees and erected makeshift barriers to try to halt the advance of tanks and armoured vehicles inside the city.
“More tank columns are heading to Deir al-Zor. By using heavy weapons, security forces are waging war against their own people,” the group said in a statement.
The official state news agency said: “Armed groups in Deir al-Zor cut off roads, terrorised citizens and attacked police.”
It added: “An exchange of fire occurred. The police forces confronted these armed groups and are still chasing them... The inhabitants of Deir al-Zor have expressed their rejection of these actions which are bad for the homeland.”
Syrian authorities have expelled most independent journalists since the uprising against Assad began in March, making it difficult to verify reports of fighting.
The unrest is taking on sectarian overtones with protesters from the Sunni Muslim majority pitted against Assad’s minority Alawites, who dominate the political and military elite.
The province of Deir al-Zor is the center of Syria’s modest oil production. Many inhabitants are armed as authorities have traditionally allowed eastern tribes, which have close links to Iraq’s Sunni heartland across the border, to keep weapons as a counterweight to Syria’s Kurds who live to the north.
The global activist group Avaaz said in a report this week that Syrian security forces had killed 1,634 people, while at least 2,918 had disappeared since the crackdown began. Another 26,000 had been arrested, many of whom were beaten and tortured, and 12,617 remained in detention, it said.
The Syrian leadership blames “armed terrorist groups” for most killings during the revolt, saying that more than 500 soldiers and security personnel have been killed.
The Syrian Revolution Coordination Union said the town of Albu Kamal bordering Iraq, on the easternmost edge of Deir al-Zor, had fallen “under a severe military siege, with water, electricity and communications cut off since Friday.”
Last week ultra-loyalist army reinforcements arrived in Albu Kamal after 30 soldiers defected following the killing of four protesters, residents said.
The official Syrian news agency said a member of the security police was killed in Albu Kamal and that saboteurs bombed an export oil pipeline near the central city of Homs on Friday.
There have been individual instances of Syrians using weapons during the unrest, but the fighting reported in Deir al-Zor appeared to represent an armed response by a significant number of people to Assad’s clampdown on public dissent.
The Syrian human rights organization Sawasiah said security forces shot dead at least 20 civilians in attacks on pro-democracy demonstrations across the country on Friday.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan