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Syrian Tanks Enter Coastal Town of Banias

  • Margaret Besheer

Rights activists say Syrian troops have killed three women marching in a demonstration outside the coastal city of Banias, a day after violence during a "day of defiance" by anti-government protesters left at least 31 people dead.

Activists told news agencies that electricity and communications were cut in Banias before the troops entered the city from three directions, heading to Sunni Muslim areas and avoiding those neighborhoods where residents from the country's ruling Alawite minority live.

Syrian security forces also entered the city in mid-April as well. It has been a center of anti-government protests and it is also the home to one of Syria's two oil refineries.

The move comes after tens of thousands of protesters shouting anti-government slogans and calling for freedom participated in demonstrations Friday in several major towns and cities, including Banias.

Syria's state news agency said Saturday that the Interior Ministry said a "subversive group" terrorized citizens and attacked property Friday in Hama governate, injuring 25 police officers.

Bashar al-Assad's government has portrayed its crackdown on protesters as trying to quell violence perpetrated by armed gangs and infiltrators.

Human rights groups say more than 600 protesters have been killed and thousands more arrested since the anti-government demonstrations began on March 15. Most foreign media have been banned from the country, so independent verification of reports has been difficult.

Despite international condemnation of the crackdown, Syria appears to be moving ahead with its candidacy for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Nadim Houry, director of Human Rights Watch's Beirut office, says it would be outrageous for the Human Rights Council to have Syria as one of its members, especially after it suspended Libya.

"It is a disgrace for Syria, but it is also a real problem for the institution of the Human Rights Council," said Houry. "Because what would be the signal that they are sending? That on the one hand the Human Rights Council meets like they did last week, calls for an international investigation into Syria, condemns Syria's practices, and then somehow welcome it to the club. That just does not add up."

The U.N. General Assembly will vote on May 20. Currently Syria's candidacy is unopposed.