BEIRUT, Lebanon — Troops backed by tanks stormed a city on Syria’s Mediterranean coast on Saturday that has proved one of the most restive in the seven-week uprising, besieging neighborhoods and cutting electricity and phone lines, opposition groups said.
The military’s move against Baniyas, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city that witnessed some of the largest protests in nationwide demonstrations a day earlier, was another signal that the Syrian government was determined to crush by force dissent that has posed a sweeping challenge to President Bashar al-Assad’s 11-year rule.
It comes nearly two weeks after the military stormed Dara’a, a poor town near the Jordanian border where protests galvanized demonstrations across the country.
Reports were scant, as the military succeeded in blocking communication with most people in the town. Opposition groups, relying on their networks there, said that the military entered the city from three directions before dawn and that civilians were forming human shields to block their deployment. There were no immediate reports of fatalities, but opposition groups reported hearing intense gunfire over the phone lines.
Gunboats were spotted off the coast.
“Land lines and cellphones have been out since dawn, and power outages are spreading,” one activist said on condition of anonymity, citing reports from Baniyas.
For days, residents had braced for an attack on Baniyas, as the Syrian military deployed scores of tanks and armored vehicles to the city’s southern outskirts. Paramilitary groups were said to have massed at its northern edge, populated by the minority Alawite sect, from which Mr. Assad’s government draws much of its support.
“They are preparing a scenario to justify raiding the city, they don’t have one yet and that is why they haven’t entered yet,” a resident there said by phone Friday. “When they will do they will make Baniyas a lesson to all the Syrians, and it is going to be ugly.”
On Friday, security forces fired on demonstrators in six Syrian towns and cities in a day of protests that activists declared a “Friday of Defiance,” killing 26. But a withering crackdown subdued the most restive town and prevented many protesters from gathering in larger demonstrations, activists and human rights groups said.
The worst violence was reported in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, where activists described a chaotic, bloody day, as tanks entered the town. The government said 10 soldiers were killed there by what it described as “terrorists,” while activists said at least nine soldiers had defected to their side. Sixteen protesters were killed, they said.
Only in Baniyas and Jassem, a town near Dara’a, were demonstrators able to mass in larger protests. The resident in Baniyas said that protesters there had carried olive branches and red and white roses to hand to soldiers if the troops entered the city, but by evening they had not. He estimated that the crowd numbered at least 7,000, many of whom chanted for freedom, for the government’s fall and for the military to lift its siege of Dara’a. “Peaceful, peaceful,” he quoted them as chanting, “our demands are patriotic.”
Authorities have described Baniyas as a center of militant Islamists and even some activists acknowledge that they have a presence there, though by no means the majority. Civic leaders in Baniyas have insisted that the charge is a government ploy to stoke tensions between Sunni Muslims and Alawites, one of the fault lines in a country beset by smoldering sectarian tensions among the Sunni Muslim majority and minorities of Christians and heterodox Muslim sects. Eastern Syria is populated by an ethnic minority, Kurds, who appeared to turn out in greater numbers in the streets on Friday.
Mr. Assad, who inherited power from his father, Hafez, in 2000, initially claimed that Syria was immune to the tumult sweeping the Arab world. When the uprising erupted in Dara’a, he responded with a mix of crackdown and concessions that proved largely rhetorical. For the past two weeks, the government has almost entirely relied on force, and there appears to be a sense in official circles that the government has the upper hand. In addition to Baniyas, the towns on the capital’s outskirts, along with Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, and its hinterland have proven especially restive.
Activists said they had reports that electricity was cut to some of Damascus’ suburbs, which are said to be suffused with checkpoints and soldiers.
The article “Syrian Troops Reportedly Enter Restive City” originally appeared in The New York Times.
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