DAMASCUS (AFP) – Syrian forces rained gunfire on Banias as they pushed ahead with an assault on the restive port, killing six people, activists said, as President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents called for elections to end the crisis.
Activists said dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles entered Banias, on the Mediterranean coast, from three directions as electricity and communications were cut. Tanks also encircled the nearby town of Baida.
Residents of Banias formed human chains in a desperate bid to halt the military operation when it began around dawn, said activists reached by telephone.
Heavy gunfire was heard in four neighbourhoods, including the southern seaside area of Banias where most of the protesters live, while naval boats patrolled offshore, a witness and an activist said.
The army was “securing” the neighbourhoods and security forces carrying out arrests. Snipers were posted on rooftops, the witness added.
“There are two killed and several wounded by intense gunfire but we don’t know who fired,” a spokesman for the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP by phone, adding several others were wounded.
Witnesses said people took to the streets after calls for jihad (holy war) rang out from the minarets of mosques.
A rights activist said security forces killed four women who were among around 150 people demonstrating on a road outside Banias calling for the release of dozens of people who had been arrested.
“Members of the security forces asked them to leave and, when they refused to do so, they opened fire,” the activist said, adding five women were also wounded.
The military confirmed it conducted an operation in Banias.
“Army units and security forces today pursued members of terrorist groups in and around Banias and neighbourhoods of (the southern flashpoint town of) Daraa to restore security and stability,” a military official said.
“They arrested people and seized a quantity of weapons that these groups have used to attack the army and citizens and scare people.”
A opposition group suggested the embattled Syrian president hold elections within six months to help end the crisis that has engulfed the country for more than seven weeks.
The Syrian Revolution 2011, a Facebook group that has been a motor of the protests, urged Assad to “stop shooting at demonstrators, allow peaceful demonstrations… release all political prisoners, allow political pluralism and free elections in six months.”
“You will be the pride of contemporary Syria if you can transform Syria from a dictatorship into a democracy,” it said in an Internet statement.
Analysts said the offer comes as protests have failed to reach the level of a full-blown revolution.
“This statement shows that the flame is flickering. We have not reached the level of a (real) popular revolution, and there is no agreement so far on the means necessary to change things,” a Syrian human rights group chief said.
The Facebook group had called for Friday’s “Day of Defiance” protests, which saw tens of thousands of people take to the streets calling for democratic reforms.
Rights groups said 26 protesters were shot dead by security forces on Friday while the military said 10 soldiers and policemen were killed in Homs by “armed terrorist groups.”
Residents had expected the army to attack Banias and reported seeing dozens of armoured vehicles, including tanks and troops reinforcements, deployed on the outskirts of the coastal city this week.
“It looks like they are preparing to attack the town, like they did in Daraa,” which the army had locked down for 10 days until they began to pull out on Thursday, one activist said.
Dozens of people were killed during the operation in Daraa, the epicentre of protests which erupted March 15 in Syria.
General Riad Haddad, the military’s political department chief, said troops in Daraa “did not confront the protesters.”
The army had entered Daraa at the request of residents to help rid them of “armed gangs” responsible for a spate of killings and vandalism.
Human rights groups say more than 600 people have been killed and 8,000 jailed or gone missing in the crackdown on protesters since mid-March. One group, the Committee of the Martyrs of the 15 March Revolution, put the death toll at 708.
The United States warned it would take “additional steps” against Syria if it continues its brutal crackdown, a week after imposing tough sanctions on the Arab nation.
It also welcomed the European Union’s decision to impose sanctions on Syrian officials “responsible for human rights abuses.”
The EU on Friday agreed to impose sanctions on 13 Syrian officials involved in the regime’s brutal crackdown on protests and will meet Monday to discuss whether to target Assad as well, diplomats said.
Meanwhile Human Rights Watch called on the UN General Assembly to strongly reject Syria’s candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council.
“Syria’s candidacy is an affront to all those facing its brutal repression, and to human rights supporters everywhere, and should be decisively rejected,” said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at HRW.
New members to the UN Human Rights Council are to be elected on May 20.