Syrian tanks, security agents and pro-regime gunmen fanned out into the streets of two towns to root out protesters demanding the ouster of President Bashar Assad in a sweep Saturday that killed at least three people.
The heaviest assault was in the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia, where a day earlier thousands had turned out in protests. At least 20 tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled into the city's el-Ramel neighborhood amid intense gunfire that sent many residents fleeing the area, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Later in the day, shooting and explosions were heard in another neighborhood, Slaibeh, according to the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group that documents protests in Syria.
Two people were killed in the shooting, the LCC and the observatory reported. Amateur videos posted on the Internet by activists showed armored personnel carriers moving down what was said to be the streets of Latakia.
Also on Saturday, scores of security agents and pro-government gunmen, known as Shabiha, entered the town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon and several nearby villages, arresting scores of residents, Abdul-Rahman said. The LCC said one person was killed in the shooting.
The army also conducted an operation in the nearby towns of Hawla and Taldaw, in the central Homs province, and deployed tanks in the area, activists said. They also reported 10 people wounded by gunfire during sweeps in the northwestern town of Sarmin.
Both the al-Ramel section of Latakia and Qusair have seen large protests against Assad's regime since demonstrations broke out throughout the country in mid-March. The government's crackdown intensified over the past weeks, with troops storming several towns and cities.
A Latakia resident confirmed the military's presence in al-Ramel, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Abdul-Rahman said many residents, mostly women and children, were fleeing the neighborhood to safer areas.
The Associated Press could not verify the activists' accounts or the contents of videos. Syria has banned most foreign media and restricted local coverage, making it impossible to get independent confirmation of the events on the ground.
In protests around the country on Friday, tens of thousands of Syrian protesters shouted for Assad's death in a dramatic escalation of their rage and frustration. The crowds took to the streets after Friday prayers, defying bullets and rooftop snipers after more than a week of intensified military assaults on rebellious cities.
Security forces killed at least 14 protesters on Friday, according to human rights groups.
The chants calling for Assad's death were a stark sign of how much the protest movement has changed since its initial demands for minor reform, without calls for regime change.
The protests have grown dramatically over the past five months, driven in part by anger over the government's bloody crackdown in which rights groups say at least 1,700 civilians have been killed.
The government has justified its crackdown by saying it's dealing with terrorist gangs and criminals who are fomenting unrest.
Also Friday, the United States stepped up calls for a global trade embargo on oil and gas from Syria warning even some of America's closest allies that they must "get on the right side of history" and cut links with a government that uses violence to repress protesters and will not reform.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said international opinion was hardening against Assad, noting a "crescendo of condemnation" from world powers and Syria's Arab neighbors. But she said tougher action was required, too.
Dutch Foreign Ministry said Friday the European Union may decide in the next week or two to broaden its sanctions against the Syrian regime and state-run businesses.
The Syrian uprising was inspired by the revolts and calls for reform sweeping the Arab world, and activists and rights groups say most of those killed have been unarmed civilians. An aggressive new military offensive that began with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at the start of August has killed several hundred people in just one week.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now