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Syria sends tanks to coastal town as protests spread

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BEIRUT — The Syrian military sent tanks into the northern coastal town of Baniyas early Saturday in a further escalation of violence against anti-government protesters, according to human rights groups and a witness.

Tanks began rolling into the town’s darkened streets at around 2 a.m., a day after thousands of people in the town had gathered in response to a call from activists to observe a nationwide “day of defiance” against the regime’s ongoing efforts to brutally crush protesters, according to a resident who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

After that, communications to the town were cut off and the few reports that emerged were sketchy. One report said gunboats had been deployed off the coast and that the town was completely besieged.

It now seems clear that the regime headed by President Bashar al-Assad is determined to crush with force the burgeoning opposition movement, even as Syrians appear equally determined to continue to defy their government.

On Friday, Syrian troops used heavy machine guns and artillery to quell anti-government protests in the key city of Homs, as tens of thousands of Syrians yet again braved the threat of bullets and tanks to take to the streets around the country.

At least 30 people were killed when security forces opened fire on demonstrators, 11 of them in Homs, human rights groups said.

Eyewitnesses reached by telephone in Homs Friday evening said they could hear what appeared to be pitched battles in several neighborhoods, prompting speculation that some members of the security forces had defected.

Syrian state television reported that 10 members of the security forces had been killed in Homs by “armed gangs,” the term used by the government to describe the protesters. However, there have been no indications that any members of the seemingly spontaneous and mostly leaderless protest movement are armed.

In Washington, the White House threatened tougher measures against Syria if the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators continues. A week after announcing sanctions against Syrian intelligence and security officials, it issued a statement that blasted the repression and warned that Western countries would “adjust their relations with Syria according to the concrete actions” undertaken by Damascus.

“Syria’s deplorable actions toward its people warrant a strong international response,” the statement read. The statement also said the United States welcomes further sanctions against Syrian leaders announced Friday by the European Union.

The clashes in Homs came amid further signs that Syrians have not been cowed by the hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests carried out in recent weeks in an effort to suppress the biggest challenge to the regime headed by al-Assad since his father brutally suppressed an armed revolt in 1982.

That crackdown, in which as many as 40,000 people died, earned the Syrian regime a reputation as one of the most repressive in the Middle East, and when revolts began rippling around the region earlier in the year, many predicted that Syrians would not dare join the swelling clamor for change.

But although Syrians came relatively late to the game, with no significant protests reported until mid-March, their opposition movement seems only to have swelled in the face of the government’s increasingly brutal crackdown. Human rights groups say more than 500 people have been killed, most of them at demonstrations, and at least 5,000 arrested.

Friday marked the seventh week since protesters first took to the streets, initially in small numbers and to call only for reforms. But as the government has responded to the unrest with escalating force, so has the protest movement persisted and spread, and it now seems clear that much of the country is in open revolt against the regime.

Responding to calls by activists to stage a “day of defiance” to protest the security crackdown, people swarmed out of mosques after noontime prayers in dozens of locations around the country, many of them calling for the overthrow of the regime.

In Damascus, which has remained largely immune from the unrest, security forces detained veteran opposition activist Riad Seif as he emerged from a mosque. Security forces dispersed a small demonstration there Friday with tear gas and ammunition.

There was no indication that this week’s protests were any larger than those on the previous two Fridays, when troops also used live fire to disperse protesters. The death toll was also lower than it was on the past two Fridays.

That may have been because tanks and security forces blocked major roads, making it impossible for people to gather in large numbers in central locations, said Wissam Tarif of the human rights group Insan. Instead, he said, they staged smaller protests in individual neighborhoods.

“What is amazing is that it is happening in so many towns and villages around the country,’’ he said.

Demonstrations were reported also in the northern coastal town of Latakia, the predominantly Kurdish northeastern town of Qamishli, Abu Kamal on the Iraqi border and in several small villages around the besieged southern city of Daraa, where the protest movement started.

But it was in Homs that the violence was worst, and it appeared to intensify after nightfall. The government cut land lines to three neighborhoods in the city, several artillery shells had exploded and the sound of gunfire was “almost continuous,” according to a resident contacted by telephone, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety.

“There is shooting in all districts of Homs,” he said, adding that it appeared the fighting was taking place between rival factions in the security forces.

A split in the security forces is the regime’s worst nightmare, given the role the army played in securing the downfall of the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia earlier in the year. But this is also not the first time that there have been indications of defections. When the government sent tanks to suppress the uprising in Daraa nearly two weeks ago, there were numerous reports that some soldiers had been shot for refusing to fire on protesters.

The crackdown nonetheless proceeded, and it is feared that hundreds may have been killed and many more detained in the southern rural city, which has been besieged by troops for the past 12 days.

Most reports from Syria cannot be independently verified, because foreign journalists have been denied visas. Among the thousands detained in the crackdown is a journalist for the al-Jazeera network, Dorothy Parvez, an Iranian Canadian who was taken into custody after she flew into the country from Qatar last week.

Many Syrians say they have only been galvanized by the brutality, and in some areas troops have not moved to crush the demonstrators. In the town of Baniyas, ringed by tanks for more than a week, several thousand people demonstrated Friday carrying olive branches and roses, which they intended to give to the army should it enter, a student activist said. The troops stayed away.

“The tanks could come to crush us at any time,” said the protester, who asked that his name not be used for his safety. “But we are not afraid, and we will continue our protest.”

Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.

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