Regime hunts opponents in Syrian towns, say activists

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DAMASCUS: Syrian troops hunted down opponents of President Bashar Al-Assad in two flashpoint cities on Sunday, rights activists said, as the regime ignored growing world anger at its bloody response to pro-democracy protests.

Tanks were deployed as the military launched the crackdown on the northwestern coastal city of Banias and Homs, another protest hub in central Syria, activists said.

Justice authorities, meanwhile, charged prominent dissident and former MP Riad Seif, a 64-year-old who suffers from cancer, with violating a ban on protests, his lawyer Khalil Maatuk said.

Overnight the military cut electricity and communications before entering several districts of Homs that are home to opponents of Assad’s regime, after having taken up positions inside central Homs on Friday, an activist said.

He reported heavy machinegun fire in Bab Baba and Sebaa Amr, two neighbourhoods in the city of one million inhabitants which has been the scene of almost daily demonstratios since the protests began mid-March.

A video posted online at YouTube showed around 20 truckloads of soldiers heading into the night towards Bab Sebaa. The authenticity of the video could not be verified.

Sixteen demonstrators were killed in Homs on Friday when security forces opened fire on a protest in the central district of Bab Draybi, the human rights group Insan reported.

The military conducted a similiar operation after cutting electricity, communications and water in the Mediterranean port city of Banias, said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"The city is isolated from the rest of the world and in the southern districts of the city, a stronghold of the protesters, there are snipers on rooftops," he said.

Security forces carried out raids during which people who had been wounded during the protests were arrested in the southern district of Al-Jamiya, said Rahman.

He warned against "a humanitarian catastrophe in the southern districts" of Banias, where 20,000 people reside. The city’s overall population is 50,000 inhabitants.

Al-Watan, a private newspaper close to the government, said that "since Friday night the Syrian army has engaged in a fierce battle against groups using heavy weapons, anti-tank rockets and machine guns in Banias and surrounding villages."

At least six people were killed in the city on Saturday, four of them women who were protesting for the release of prisoners taken into custody by security forces, an activist said.

Another two people died late in the day, according to a toll complied by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

The military launched its action in Banias and Homs after ending a 10-day lockdown in which dozens were killed and scores detained in the southern town of Daraa, the epicentre of the pro-democracy protests that erupted on March 15.

Al-Watan said that Syria’s embattled president met on Saturday with a delegation of youths "who spoke of the violent practices of some security forces.

"President Assad did not deny such practices and said it was down to individual behaviour, and that the government was working to contain the crisis and avert violence," it reported.

Meanwhile, the detained dissident Seif "was brought to court which convicted him of committing the crime," said his lawyer Maatuk, who defends prisoners of conscience.

Seif told the judge he had been "struck in the head by security officers" when he was arrested after weekly Muslim prayers on Friday as hundreds gathered for an anti-regime demonstration.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered Saturday in front of the Syrian embassy in London, tearing up photographs of Assad in protest against the bloody crackdown on his opponents.

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