At least three people were shot dead by government forces and scores more were injured Sunday in the coastal city of Banias, as Syria’s unrest took a decisive hold in the north and continued into its third consecutive day.
Protests broke out in Banias, an important port and oil refining city 25 miles south of Latakia, on Friday as they have done in previous weeks. But this time, they appeared bigger and better organized, activists said. In response, Syrian authorities deployed military and security forces to block access to the city. Communications networks were interrupted before the forces began to attack the protesters, activists said.
The clashes continued through Sunday, as the violence between protesters and the government escalated. Eyewitnesses reported shooting in Banias in the morning and in the afternoon. The city is a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect.
Also on Sunday, mourners in Douma and Deraa, two main hubs of protest, took to the streets as Mr. Assad said the country was “on the road” to “comprehensive reforms.” Mr. Assad’s remarks came in statement after a meeting in Damascus with the Bulgarian foreign minister.
The protests in Syria began three weeks ago and already have taken root in the coastal cities of Jabla and Latakia, north of Banias.
The violence in Banias came as the Syrian government moved to harden its stance toward protesters. “There is no more room for leniency or tolerance,” a statement by the Ministry of Interior on Friday said, according to Syria’s official media agency SANA. It added that it would preserve the security of the country and protect the general order “according to the law which specified the conditions for using weapons.”
Human-rights organizations said at least 27 people were killed in Deraa on Friday and 10 elsewhere in the bloodiest day since Syria’s uprising started on March 18. On Saturday, clashes again erupted between protesters and security forces in Deraa as mourners attended mass funerals for some of those killed on Friday. It was unclear whether anyone had died.
Activists said that Banias was in virtual lockdown Sunday, making information hard to obtain, while human-rights observers said they were concerned by the rapidly growing death toll, as well as by reports that the injured were being stopped from seeking medical treatment.
“Syrian security forces are committing what amounts to a crime against humanity,” said Radwan Ziadeh, the head of the Damascus Center for Human Rights and a visiting scholar at George Washington University, who is monitoring the violence. “On Friday once again the security forces are shooting at nurses in ambulances, preventing treatment of the injured and blocking their arrival to the hospitals whilst other people are too scared to seek treatment,” he said.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday condemned the crackdown in Syria. “I strongly condemn the abhorrent violence committed against peaceful protesters by the Syrian government today and over the past few weeks,” Mr. Obama said in a written statement.
Foreign and domestic observers say it is becoming increasingly difficult to see a way out of the crisis, which is posing an increasing challenge to Mr. Assad’s Baath party regime, in power since 1963.
Mr. Assad has yet to offer concrete reforms that meet protesters’ demands, including the lifting of emergency law and the release of political prisoners. As reforms continue to be delayed, rising chants for the toppling of the regime have been heard.
“This is more and more unease as Syrians wonder how it is possible to get out of this situation,” said Rime Allaf, a Syrian analyst at London’s Chatham House, a think tank in the U.K. “If the authorities want to calm the situation down, they need to stop using violence. It is only encouraging more people to come out.”
Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown while causing fear to spread across the country, appears to have had the overall effect of encouraging more people to take to the streets.
Meanwhile, there are initial signs that the government’s response is causing discontent among regime loyalists as well as the general public. On Saturday Samira Masalma, the editor of state newspaper Tishreen, was sacked after criticizing the security apparatus’s use of force against protesters.
Several regime members are from Deraa, including Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad and Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa. Some analysts said they still believe Mr. Assad can offer reforms to quell the unrest. But activists in Damascus said this course of action seemed unlikely.
One activist said Friday’s statement by the government was being interpreted by protesters as a revocation of Mr. Assad’s order, already flouted, that live fire won’t be used. “If there was no order to shoot before, I fear what scale of violence we will see now,” said the activist, who asked not to be named. Agencies