Middle East

Syrian tanks and troops 'enter flashpoint Baniyas city'

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Media captionAmateur video purportedly shows tanks heading for Baniyas

Troops and tanks are reported to have swept into the Syrian city of Baniyas and at least six people in the area have been killed, activists say.

They said the dead included four women who had staged a protest asking for the release of people recently arrested.

Baniyas has become a centre of anti-government protests, which are said to have left hundreds dead across Syria.

Communications to Baniyas and surrounding areas appear to have been cut, making the reports hard to verify.

Foreign journalists have been prevented from entering Syria.

Syrian state TV said security forces had entered Baniyas to pursue "armed terrorist elements".

'Searches and arrests'

Syrian troops and tanks reportedly moved into Baniyas in the early hours of Saturday having circled the city since Wednesday.

Campaigners in touch with residents in Baniyas said the armed units had advanced from three directions on Sunni Muslim areas in the south of the city.

They said the units had steered clear of neighbourhoods of the minority Alawite sect, to which the president and his family belong.

Activists said that security forces began house-to-house searches with lists of people they were after.

They said four people died when troops opened fire on women who had been calling for the release of arrested protesters.

An opposition website said the women had been shot while forming a human shield to block the tanks.

Two other people were killed and several injured in Baniyas, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Hundreds of families were said to be fleeing Baniyas on Friday.

Many feared the city - which has witnessed some of the most persistent demonstrations - would come under siege like the southern city of Deraa, where the uprising erupted seven weeks ago.

The Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies has accused the government of carrying out "10 days of massacres" as it attempted to take back Deraa.

International condemnation

It says snipers and anti-aircraft machine guns were used to fire on unarmed civilians. Amateur video appears to show dozens of unarmed protesters being shot and bleeding to death on the streets.

Rights activists say more than 580 people have been killed in anti-government protests in Syria since mid-March.

However, Syrian rights group Sawasiah told Reuters news agency on Saturday it had the names of at least 800 dead civilians.

Syrian officials have given a lower death toll, and say half the fatalities have been soldiers and police, killed by "armed terrorist groups".

At least 26 people were reportedly killed in Homs, Hama and other cities on Friday, in what protesters had vowed would be a "day of defiance".

The US has called the violence "deplorable" and has pledged a "strong international response" if President Bashar al-Assad does not take steps to end the bloodshed.

The European Union has agreed to impose asset freezes and travel restrictions on up to 14 Syrian officials allegedly involved in the brutal crackdown.

The UN says it is to send a team into Syria to investigate the situation, the AP reports.

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