Syria Presses Crackdown in Two Cities on Coast
By LIAM STACK and KATHERINE ZOEPF
Published: April 12, 2011
CAIRO — The security crackdown on Syria’s coastal region tightened on Tuesday, with checkpoints blocking off access to the city of Baniyas and its outlying areas and a violent raid by government security forces on the nearby village of Bayda, local human rights advocates said.
On Sunday, four protesters were killed by state security forces during pro-democracy demonstrations in Baniyas, a port city known for its nearby orchards and its large oil refinery. On Monday an eyewitness in the city told the news channel that shooting continued to be heard in the city’s Al-Nabe’a district, where the biggest clashes between protesters and security forces took place Sunday.
The village of Bayda was being “punished” for offering refuge to people fleeing Baniyas, and because residents were rumored to be planning a protest of their own, said Wissam Tarif, a Syrian human rights advocate. He said security forces had raided houses in the village and pulled both men and women into the town square, where they were “collectively beaten” by security agents.
“They formed circles around them in the square, and they beat them,” Mr. Tarif said. “They felt like the town was supporting Baniyas.”
His organization, Insan, has confirmed one death in Bayda and was told of two more in Baniyas, which he said it had been unable to confirm. Mr. Tarif was speaking by phone from Tartous, about 20 miles south of Baniyas.
Razan Zeitouneh, a Damascus-based human rights advocate, said in an e-mail that her sources backed up Mr. Tarif’s account of the attack on Bayda and added that there was mounting anxiety in Baniyas about another assault.
“Baniyas is still surrounded by army and security,” Ms. Zeitouneh wrote. “There is fears that it will be attacked this night.”
Several hours after sending the e-mail, Ms. Zeitouneh, who has routinely used her Facebook page to publicize the findings of her organization, the Syrian Human Rights Information Link, began posting what she said were eyewitness accounts of nighttime attacks on villages near Baniyas.
“Heavy shooting at the southern entrance of Baniyas now,” read one post.
“Finishing invasion of the orchards and arresting tens, and starting to invade the neighborhoods of al-Basyia and al-Oudima,” read another.
Syria’s state-run news agency, SANA, has remained mostly silent about the events in and around Baniyas, reporting only on what it said were the killings of nine Syrian soldiers “at the criminal hands of a group of terrorists and thugs” in Baniyas on Sunday. Some members of the Syrian opposition have claimed that the soldiers were killed by security forces for refusing to fire at protesters.
Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist and professor at the University of Oklahoma who is married to a Syrian, reported on his blog, Syria Comment, that his wife’s first cousin, Lt. Col. Yasir Qash’ur, was one of those killed.
Of the people commenting on his blog, many of whom identify themselves as Syrians or people of Syrian origin living overseas, Mr. Landis said: “Half of the people on my site are writing in and saying that the government is killing soldiers in order to incite civil war. The other half are saying that it was the protesters who killed the soldiers.”
Information about events in Syria has become increasingly difficult to verify in recent weeks, as the government has banned foreign journalists from traveling outside of Damascus.
“No one has good information, and everyone has something completely different,” Mr. Landis said. “This is an indication of how horribly divided Syrians are.”
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch issued a statement Tuesday asserting that some of the protesters who have been wounded in the pro-democracy demonstrations that began in mid-March have been prevented from getting medical care. “We’ve been getting reports of a number of people who have died in mosques of bullet wounds,” Nadim Houry, the Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in a phone interview from Beirut.
In some cases, security forces have surrounded hospitals so wounded protesters cannot get treatment. “We’ve also heard about shooting of demonstrators who were trying to pull people to safety into buildings,” Mr. Houry said. “We’ve talked to seven or eight people who have been involved in or witnessed such incidents.”
The White House issued a statement on Tuesday condemning the government’s response to the protests as “outrageous.”
“We are deeply concerned by reports that Syrians who have been wounded by their government are being denied access to medical care,” it said.
Professor Landis said: “It is clear that the gloves are off and the regime is going to do whatever it takes to stay in power. This is war at this point. The government cannot afford to have this level of violence continue much longer.”
Liam Stack reported from Cairo, and Katherine Zoepf from New York.
A version of this article appeared in print on April 13, 2011, on page A12 of the New York edition.
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