Syrian tanks rolled into a Mediterranean coastal town today in an escalating crackdown by President Bashar Assad, just a day after clashes with anti-government protesters left at least 30 dead nationwide.
Details of the troop deployment in Banias, which has seen weeks of demonstrations demanding regime change, were scarce as communication and phone lines with the town and the surrounding area were cut off.
But activists in touch with townspeople said soldiers deployed in Banias before dawn.
One activist said tanks rolled into the seaside area and were stationed in at least three Sunni villages just south of Banias, adding that soldiers were carrying out house-to-house searches and arrests in al-Marqab district about a mile south east of the town and in the villages of Bayda and Basatin further south.
Banias, which has a major oil refinery and is the main point of export for Syrian oil, has a potentially explosive mix of religious groups and sects. It is divided between Sunni Muslims and Alawites - the sect of the ruling Assad family and many key officials.
Several other activists reported gunboats off the Banias coast. They said the town, which had become a leading focus of anti-regime demonstrations, was now completely besieged. The activists spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The Banias deployment came just hours after yesterday's clashes with anti-government protesters killed 30 people across the country, according to a leading Syrian rights activist.
The move raises fears of a large-scale military operation in Banias, similar to the one carried out in the flashpoint southern city of Daraa.
Daraa, near the Jordanian border, has been under siege since April 25, when Syrian authorities cut off electricity and phone lines and deployed tanks and snipers to crush dissent there.
The army announced the end to an 11-day military operation on Thursday, but residents have since said troops remain in the streets. About 50 people have been reported killed in Daraa over the past 10 days.
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.
More than 580 civilians and 100 soldiers have been killed since the revolt began, rights groups say.
The UN said today it is sending a team into Syria to investigate the situation, and the European Union is expected to place sanctions on Syrian officials next week.
Both actions are significant blows to Assad, a British-educated, self-styled reformer who has tried to bring Syria back into the global mainstream over his 11 years in power.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the US was pressing the Syrian government to cease "violence against innocent citizens who are simply demonstrating and trying to state their aspirations for a more democratic future".
Yesterday's protests spanned the nation, from the capital to the Mediterranean coast and the arid north east.
Rallies were held in major areas including the capital, Damascus, and its suburbs, Banias and Qamishli in the north east.
A prominent human rights activist told The Associated Press that 30 people were killed, all of them protesters.
Syria's state-run media said 10 soldiers and policemen were killed in the central city of Homs, and 25 others were wounded in Hama.