DAMASCUS // A powerful force of infantry and tanks swept into Banias yesterday in a major military operation to crush an anti-government uprising.
Few details were available last night from inside the city, 280km north-west of Damascus and home to one of Syria's two oil refineries, with phone lines and internet connections cut as troops moved in.
Civilian neighbourhoods in the urban centre and some villages in the surrounding areas were under siege, civil-rights activists said, as army units raided homes searching for anti-government dissidents.
There were reports of gunfire across the city. Civil-rights campaigners said at least three women were killed after soldiers using live ammunition shot at a small crowd protesting on the main coastal highway. None of the claims could be independently verified.
The Syrian government has called Banias, together with the city of Homs, centres for Islamist militancy and the heart of a foreign-backed terrorist insurrection.
Analysts and civil-rights activists said the authorities appeared to be applying the same policy of overwhelming force in Banias that were used to devastating effect in the southern city of Deraa.
Tanks shelled homes, with dozens of people killed and arrested in a 10-day offensive in Deraa, 100km south of Damascus, according to residents and human-rights groups. The government says its operations there are now being wound down, but a significant military presence remains.
"It doesn't look good, It's the second stage of the military solution," said one Syrian analyst. "They have finished Deraa and now they want to finish Banias in the same way."
Both cities have been a thorn in the side of the authorities since an anti-government uprising began more than seven weeks ago. They have held regular protests demanding sweeping political change, including the departure of the president, Bashar al Assad.
While protests in other parts of Syria have often been small and brief, Banias, like Deraa, has held numerous well-organised rallies attended by as many as 20,000 at a time. As such, it has posed a blatant challenge to the ruling elite and the autocratic system of government established by Hafez al Assad, the former president and father of the current ruler.
The broad sequence of events in Banias has also, to date, mirrored those in Deraa: demonstrations, shootings by pro-government forces, rising anger, failed attempts at concessions and, finally, the deployment of combat units.
Unlike in Deraa, however, there is greater potential for sectarian discord in Banias, which has a sizable Alawite minority living in the urban area and surrounding districts, while most of the population are Sunni. Alawites are at the centre of power in Syria, dominating both the political and military establishment.
The first outbreak of violence in Banias, last month, had distinctly sectarian undertones. According to residents, members of a largely Alawite, pro-government militia, known as the Shabbiha, killed civilian protesters and carried out a drive-by shooting on the Abu Bakr al Sidiq mosque in a Sunni neighbourhood.
Protests followed and the military, including tanks, was deployed, only for a busload of troops on the main coastal highway to be ambushed, according to the government, with nine soldiers killed and dozens wounded.
A security crackdown followed, with the arrest of 200 men in the nearby village of Baida, and allegations of serious abuse and humiliation of detainees.
As tensions escalated, community leaders and the government agreed to a package of calming measures, with a local policy chief sacked and secret police units pulled out of the city and replaced by soldiers, a move welcomed at the time by some residents who saw the military as a more impartial alternative to the highly politicised security agencies.
That deal appeared to give a semblance of stability, but it was always shaky. On the day it was struck, a soldier was fatally shot by a sniper, according to the government.
And the open defiance of the authorities continued, with protesters taking to the streets soon after Mr al Assad announced martial law would be lifted - a step the government saw as a major concession. It was brushed aside by the Banias protesters, however, who said it did not go far enough and had no impact on the ground.
Banias dissidents also made a point of refuting government claims they were driven by an austere brand of Islam that aimed to impose strict Muslim laws on Syria's minority communities. After the interior ministry said the city was a centre for "Salafist organisation", demonstrators took to the streets chanting: "Not Salafist, not Muslim Brotherhood, we are freedom seekers".
The government's charge over Islamist extremism is one that some secular and minority groups have said has merit, not only because of the attacks against military units, but because the very first protest in Banias, in March, included a specific demand by demonstrators that veiled women be allowed to teach in Syrian schools.
Hundreds of teachers wearing the niqab had previously been sacked from their jobs over the issue, to the anger of many in the Sunni community. In one of its concessions to protesters, the government has since revoked the ban.
Pro-regime figures have also claimed that protesters in Banias are being orchestrated - and supplied with cash and weapons - by te former vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam. He defected from the Baath party in 2005 and, from exile in France, has been a vocal critic of Mr Assad.
But inside Syria he is a widely reviled figure, seen as corrupt and close to the ruling elite, and bitter that he was sidelined from his position of power.
He has denied allegations of smuggling arms to anti-government groups.
In the absence of independent monitors there are no confirmed figures for the number of civilians killed in the Syrian uprising, with human-rights groups saying between 450 and 800 have lost their lives at the hands of security services.
The government disputes those figures, saying about 70 civilians have been killed, most at the hands of "armed gangs", while claiming more than 70 soldiers and police officers have been killed.