BEIRUT – Troops in tanks and armored vehicles entered a key oil-industry city on Syria's Mediterranean coast Saturday, taking up position in a hilltop Crusader castle and cutting off power and phone lines. An activist said three women protesting the crackdown were shot dead.
The move against Banias, which had become a bastion of anti-regime protests in recent days, signals an expanding campaign by President Bashar Assad aimed at crushing the country's seven-week nationwide uprising.
Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights said the three women were protesting the siege and the cutting of power lines when they were shot dead by plainclothed security forces or pro-government gunmen.
Saturday's shooting occurred near al-Marqab, about a mile southeast of Banias. Qurabi said gunfire was continuing and several other people were wounded.
The events in Banias, a day after security forces killed 30 people in nationwide protests, came on the heels of a large-scale military operation in the flashpoint southern city of Daraa. The 11-day siege, in which about 50 residents were killed, triggered international outrage and condemnation.
The U.S. has already targeted three top Syrian officials as well as Syria's intelligence agency and Iran's Revolutionary Guard with sanctions over the crackdown. The European Union is expected to place sanctions on Syrian officials next week, and the U.N. said Saturday it is sending a team into Syria to investigate the situation.
An operation in Banias similar to the one in Daraa, where the uprising began, risks further isolating Assad's regime, which has used brutal military force to crush the unprecedented revolt against his family's 40-year dynasty.
Details of the troop deployment in Banias, for weeks the scene of demonstrations demanding regime change, were scarce as phone lines and other communication with the area were mostly cut off.
But an eyewitness reached by The Associated Press said soldiers deployed in Banias early Saturday on tanks and armored vehicles, stretching for several kilometers (miles) along the coastal highway as they approached.
He said tanks moved into the seaside area and were stationed in at least three Sunni villages just south of Banias. Soldiers were carrying out house-to-house searches and arrests in al-Marqab district about a mile southeast of the town and in two villages further south, claiming to be looking for weapons and terrorist fugitives.
The witness and activists said the army is now occupying the hilltop Marqab Castle, an 11th century Crusader fortress overlooking Banias. Several gunboats were seen off the coast.
"Banias is now surrounded from all directions, not a single person can go in or out," said the resident, who did not wish to be identified for fear of reprisals.
He said electricity and phone lines had been cut off, and residents were charging their mobile phones on car batteries.
Banias, which is home to one of the country's two oil refineries and is the main point of export for Syrian oil, has a potentially explosive mix of religious groups and sects. It is predominantly Sunni Muslim but is also home to many Alawites — the sect of the ruling Assad family and many senior officials. It also has a large power station.
Syrian officials and state-run media has tried to portray Banias as a hotbed of Islamic extremists to justify its crackdown. SANA said the army and security forces were pursuing fugitives in Banias and were able to arrest a large number of them and confiscate weapons used by them.
On Friday, witnesses said several thousand people held a protest in Banias calling for regime change.
"They are trying to portray us as criminals. We are not, we only want to live in freedom and dignity," said one Banias resident.
Elsewhere, up to 20,000 people took part in the funerals Saturday of seven people who were among those killed the previous day in the central city of Homs. A witness said soldiers on tanks and armored vehicles were deployed on intersections and roundabouts on the outer edge of the city while soldiers and security forces were heavily deployed inside.
In the Damascus suburb of Saqba, some 3,000 people took part in a funeral for a man reportedly shot dead by security forces manning a checkpoint as he was riding a motorcycle following a protest.
The Banias deployment came just hours after Friday's confrontations between security forces and protesters. A leading Syrian human rights activist said security forces killed 30 people across the country; Syria's state-run media said 11 soldiers and policemen were killed in Homs.
The uprising in Syria was sparked by the arrest of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall in Daraa. Protests spread quickly across the nation of some 23 million people.
The army announced the end to an 11-day military operation in Daraa on Thursday, but residents have said troops still remain in the streets.
The National Organization for Human Rights said in a statement Saturday it had reports authorities were trying to cover up traces of crimes they committed in Daraa, paving roads and painting pro-government slogans on the city's walls ahead of the visit by the U.N. investigative team.
More than 580 civilians and 100 soldiers have been killed since the revolt began, rights groups say.
The bloodshed Friday was the latest spasm in what has become a weekly cycle of mass protests followed by a swift and deadly crackdown. Assad insists the unrest is a foreign conspiracy carried out by "terrorist groups."
Zeina Karam can be reached at http://twitter.com/zkaram