Syrian tanks stormed the flashpoint city of Banias yesterday, rights activists said, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ignored growing world outrage to press a violent crackdown on anti-regime protesters.
Heavy gunfire was heard in Banias’ south, a seaside sector of the city where most of the protesters live, while navy boats patrolled offshore, said the activists, reached by telephone from Nicosia.
An Internet-based Syrian opposition group, meanwhile, proposed yesterday that embattled Assad offer to hold elections in six months in order to bring to an end the crisis that has engulfed his country for more than seven weeks.
The military assault on Banias, in northwestern Syria on the Mediterranean coast, came after security forces shot dead 26 protesters on Friday during a huge “Day of Defiance” against the regime, according to a toll by rights groups.
The rights activists said residents of Banias formed human chains in a desperate bid to halt the military operation when it began very early yesterday.
Electricity and communications were cut as the tanks entered from three directions. The activists spoke of tens of tanks and armored vehicles in the city. Tanks also encircled the nearby town of Baida.
The military sweep into Banias comes two days after a convoy of 40 military vehicles pulled out of the southern town of Daraa, another protest center, which the military had locked down since April 25. On Wednesday, residents of Banias said dozens of armoured vehicles, including tanks and troops reinforcements, had been deployed on the outskirts of Banias.
Dozens of people were killed during the 10-day military assault on Daraa, launched with what activists termed “indiscriminate” shelling of the town.
However, General Riad Haddad, the military’s political department chief, insisted that troops in Daraa “did not confront the protesters. We continue searching for terrorists hidden in several places. As the army, we never confronted the protesters.”
Human rights groups say that more than 600 people have been killed and 8,000 jailed or gone missing in the crackdown on protesters since demonstrations erupted in mid-March.
Syrian rights groups Sawasiah said yesterday security forces have shot dead at least 800 civilians since the protests began. The organization, which was founded by jailed human rights lawyer Mohannad al-Hassani, said in a statement it had the names of the 800 civilians killed, including 220 killed in a tank-backed army attack on Daraa.