AMMAN, (Reuters) – Syrian security forces sealed off the coastal city of Banias overnight following pro-democracy protests and killings by irregulars loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, witnesses said on Monday.
Violence in Banias, home to one of Syria’s two oil refineries, erupted on Sunday when irregulars from the ruling Alawite minority, known as “shabbiha,” fired at residents with automatic rifles from speeding cars, the witnesses said.
Four people were killed in the mostly Sunni Muslim city on the Mediterranean coast, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Authorities said an armed group had ambushed a patrol near Banias, killing nine soldiers.
Activists and protesters said roads to Banias were blocked.
“Electricity has been cut since yesterday. People are very afraid,” Anas al-Shughri, one of the protest leaders, told Reuters from Banias. “The army has deployed in Banias with infantry and they have set up checkpoints in and around the city.”
Facing an unprecedented challenge to his authoritarian rule, Assad has said the protests are part of a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife.
His father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, used similar language when he crushed leftist and Islamist challenges to his rule in the 1980s, killing thousands.
Civic leaders and opposition figures reject the allegation and issued a declaration last month denouncing sectarianism, committing to non-violent democratic change and stating that Syria’s people “as a whole are under repression.”
The ruling family, Bashar’s brother Maher is the second most powerful person in Syria, belong to the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, which comprises around 10 percent of the country’s 20 million population.
“The Alawites, like other minorities living under tyrannical systems, fear the unknown if the regime falls. But this does not mean that they support the violence it is committing,” an Alawite human rights lawyer said.
The protests have spread across Syria despite Assad’s attempts to defuse resentment by making gestures towards demands for an end to an emergency law in force for five decades and to appease minority Kurds and conservative Sunni Muslims.
With popular dissent now in its fourth week, security forces fanned out in tanks on Saturday night near the Banias oil refinery, close to the Alawite district of Qusour where the main hospital is located.
Gunfire could be heard across the city on Sunday.
“The streets have emptied following the killings. People are afraid. The shabbiha fired at random and you can see bullet holes on buildings,” a human rights activist in Banias said.
At least 90 people in Syria have been killed in mass demonstrations, which first erupted in March to demand the release of school children who scrawled pro-democracy graffiti on school walls in the southern city of Deraa, and later progressed to calling for freedoms and an end to Assad’s rule.
Any political change in Syria would have wider repercussions because the ruling Assad family maintains an anti-Israel alliance with Iran and supports the militant Hezbollah and Hamas movements while also seeking a peace deal with the Jewish state.
The West has condemned Syria’s use of violence but diplomats say it is unlikely that Syria will face the kind of intervention seen in Libya, unless killings reach the scale of the 1980s.
Then, mostly Alawite forces loyal to the elder Assad attacked the city of Hama to crush an armed uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Up to 30,000 people were killed.
“I am afraid that the security forces in Syria are much more tied to the regime than in Libya. The Syrian protesters are oblivious to the distinct possibility that the ruling elite may not hesitate to kill thousands to hold onto power,” one of the diplomats said.
The authorities have intensified a crackdown on independent media since the protests began, expelling Reuters Damascus correspondent and detaining four other Reuters journalists for several days. Two Associated Press journalists were also expelled at less than an hour’s notice, the agency said.
Syria has blamed the unprecedented unrest on “armed groups” firing randomly at citizens and security forces. State television is the only media allowed into the flashpoints.
A doctor and a university professor in Banias said a group was guarding the Sunni Abu Bakr al-Siddiq mosque with sticks during morning prayers when it came under attack by the shabbiha in their cars.
“Four people were hit in the feet and legs. The fifth sustained the most serious injury, an AK-47 bullet that went through his left chest lateral,” said the doctor.
The attack followed a demonstration of some 2,000 people in Banias on Friday when protesters shouted “the people want the overthrow of the regime” — the rallying cry of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions that have inspired growing protests across Syria against decades of Alawite domination.