(guardian.co.uk) Fears mount that regime of Bashar al-Assad is planning to repeat the siege tactics it deployed in Deraa
Syrian tanks rolled into the Mediterranean coastal town of Banias on Saturday and opened fire on demonstrators as President Bashar al-Assad continued the violent assault on his opponents.
A day after clashes with anti-government protesters that left at least 30 dead nationwide according to activists and an eyewitness, fears mounted that the Syrian regime was planning to repeat the siege tactics it deployed in Deraa, another key opposition centre.
Those fears were bolstered by reports yesterday that Syrian forces had shot dead four women demonstrating on a coastal road near Banias. Ammar Qurabi of the National Organisation for Human Rights said the women, part of a small all-female gathering, had been protesting against the siege and the cutting of power lines when they were killed by plainclothes security forces or pro-government gunmen. Their bodies were taken to hospital in a Sunni district of the besieged town.
“Banias is now surrounded from all all directions, not a single person can go in or out,” said a resident, who did not wish to be identified. He added that electricity and phone lines had been cut and residents were charging their mobile phones on car batteries. Activists said gunboats could be seen off the Banias coastline and gunfire was heard after tanks approached from three directions in the early hours.
As civilians made human chains to protect neighbourhoods, eyewitnesses added that Sunni rather than Alawite neighbourhoods were being targeted. Banias, which has an oil refinery and is the main point of export for Syrian oil, is a predominantly Sunni city close to the Jebel Ansuriya stronghold of Assad’s minority Alawite sect. It has a potentially explosive mix of religious groups and sects.
The latest attacks came in defiance of a US sanctions regime already imposed and despite the expected announcement that the EU will announce sanctions next week against 14 regime officials, although not Assad .
The eyewitness said an atmosphere of fear and apprehension had taken over the town, adding that two-thirds of the population had already fled, notably women and children.
Activists in touch with residents confirmed his account, saying the town, which has become a leading focus of anti-regime demonstrations, was now besieged. The activists also spoke on condition of anonymity, citing security concerns.
The moves came after human rights groups said at least 30 were shot dead in anti-government protests on Friday’s “day of defiance” and rights group Sawasieh raised the total death toll since mid-March to 800.
“The use of tanks makes us think they are planning to siege the city like Deraa,” said one analyst in the capital. Banias’s persistent restiveness – like that of the southern stronghold, which was surrounded by tanks on 25 April – has irked the government. And, like Deraa’s Omari mosque imam Ahmed Sayasna, Banias has a prominent cleric, Anas Airout, who has come out in support of the protesters.
As news of the tanks’ arrival broke in the capital on Saturday , supporters of the protesters said the international community’s response had been too slow, allowing a brutal crackdown to push to the limit the protesters’ resolve.
The international community, like Syrian protesters, has rejected military intervention and has struggled to find ways of putting pressure on the Assad regime.
On Saturday some Syrians in the capital expressed frustration at the lack of momentum, claiming that many more people wanted change than the protests numbers suggested.
“When a television show gets one complaint, you know there are 100 more who are unhappy but couldn’t be bothered to write,” said one young man who identified himself as Omar. “It’s the same here, but each protester may be worth 200 or 300 people who are too scared to come out.”
by Katherine Marsh
~ is the pseudonym of a journalist living in Damascus