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SYRIA: Syrian soldiers storm coastal town of Baniyas overnight

May 7, 2011 | 12:37 am


Protesters reported that Syrian troops had stormed the coastal city of Baniyas overnight in an attempt to halt demonstrations that began after Friday prayers.

Early Saturday, protesters said civilians were forming human shields downtown and in neighborhoods to the north, south and southeast of the Al Marqab Castle, although the reports could not be independently verified. 

"There are gunboats spotted off the coast, we can hear heavy gunfire. The land line and cellular connections have been out since dawn, and power outages are spreading," protesters said via email.
Protesters said they feared the military mobilization would turn into a repeat of the army's response in the southern city of Dara, which has been besieged since the start of the six-week uprising.

Military units entered the coastal city, whose residents are mostly Sunni Muslim, from three directions overnight, focusing on Sunni and not Alawite neighborhoods, a human rights activist told Reuters.

Embattled President Bashar Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

“Residents are reporting the sound of heavy gunfire and seeing Syrian navy boats off the Baniyas coast. Sunni and mixed neighborhoods are totally besieged now,” the activist, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters.

On Friday, protesters reported at least 16 people were shot and killed during demonstrations in the city, according to the Associated Press, although those reports could not be verified.

Earlier this week, protesters said Syrian forces had descended on areas of central Baniyas that had been under the control of pro-democracy demonstrators for weeks after protests erupted last month.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Cairo

Photo: A cellphone photo shows Syrian protesters gathered Friday in Baniyas, where Syrian security forces reportedly opened fire on crowds, killing at least 16 people. Thousands joined demonstrations across the country calling for an end to President Bashar Assad's regime, witnesses and activists said. Credit: Associated Press