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SYRIA: Casualties mount in Baniyas after protesters call for Assad regime to fall

April 10, 2011 | 12:22 pm

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

At least three people were killed and scores wounded on Sunday as Syrian security forces kept up their assault on the coastal town of Baniyas, where anti-government protests have gained momentum in recent days, according to eyewitnesses.

"We just want our rights, but unfortunately we live under the thumb of a mafia, and that mafia belongs to Bashar Assad," said Hamad Orabi, a Baniyas resident, referring to the Syrian president. Orabi blamed armed groups with government ties for the eruption of violence in the city, which continued well into Sunday afternoon as land and mobile phone lines were often blocked.

"There are armed groups, some of them in civilian clothes, but they all belong to the government," he said. Orabi added that the recent bout of fighting began early Sunday morning following a peaceful march on Saturday night where protesters chanted "the people want to topple the regime," replacing earlier slogans calling for reform and freedom.

Meanwhile, Syrian state media reported on Sunday that Assad met with Bulgaria's foreign minister, Nikolay Mladenov, assuring him that Syria was on the road to "comprehensive reform."

Assad has sought to placate protesters with limited concessions in recent weeks, granting citizenship to approximately 300,000 stateless Kurds and establishing a committee to study the repeal of the emergency law, under which security forces continue to arrest and imprison activists. But the mounting death toll appears to be galvanizing a movement that has struggled to take root in many cities, including the capital of Damascus.

Human rights groups say more than 200 people throughout Syria have been killed in the unrest since the anti-government protest movement began in the southern town of Deraa almost a month ago, 37 of whom died on Friday in the single deadliest day so far.

Syrian officials have blamed "armed groups" sponsored by foreign interests for the violence, reporting a high number of casualties among police and security forces. The ministry of interior issued a statement on Friday warning that "there is no more room for leniency or tolerance in enforcing law, preserving security of country and citizens and protecting general order."

For the record, 3:32 a.m., April 11: A previous version of this post stated that human rights groups said that more than 300 people have been killed since the Syrian unrest began. The estimate is more than 200.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut