Syrian Army Enters Key City After Deadly Shooting

By Zeina Karam | April 11, 2011 | 6:28 AM EDT

Beirut (AP) - Syrian soldiers on army trucks and jeeps entered the key port city of Banias on Monday, a day after a shootout in which at least four anti-government protesters were killed and dozens of others were wounded, witnesses said.

An eyewitness said the military entered the Mediterranean city in the morning hours, taking up positions around key buildings and intersections. The witness, speaking on the phone from Banias, said the city, including schools and shops were shuttered amid anticipation of more clashes, and only a few pharmacies and bakeries remained open.

He said the army's arrival was met mostly with relief.

"We are happy it's the army and not security forces who are like regime-hired gangs," he told The Associated Press. Like most eyewitnesses who spoke to the AP, he requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from the government.

Witnesses and human rights activists say Syrian security forces and pro-government gunmen killed four protesters in Banias on Sunday as hundreds were gathering for an anti-government rally, undaunted by the regime's use of deadly force to quell more than three weeks of unrest.

State TV reported that nine soldiers were killed in an ambush near the city.

One witness said hundreds of protesters had gathered near the al-Rahman mosque when security forces and armed men in civilian clothes opened fire on them. The names of the dead were read out on mosque loudspeakers.

He also said dozens of people were wounded, with most of them asking to be treated at a small clinic instead of at the main hospital, which was under the control of the feared security forces.

Several other human rights activists, also citing witnesses, reported shooting in Banias on Sunday.

Protests erupted in Syria more than three weeks ago and have been growing steadily every week, with tens of thousands of people calling for sweeping reforms to President Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime.

More than 170 people have been killed, according to human rights groups.

The government blames the violence on armed gangs rather than reform-seekers and has vowed to crush further unrest. Backing up that contention, state television reported that thugs were behind the killing of nine soldiers in an ambush near Banias, which is 185 miles (300 kilometers) northwest of the capital, Damascus.

The report said gunmen hiding among trees along a road shot at the soldiers, and it broadcast images later of and ambulance and other civilian vehicles coming under fire along the same road.