BEIRUT (AP) - Gunfire erupted across a key port city in northeastern Syria on Sunday after the army sealed the area off, deploying tanks and cutting communications. Human rights activists said there were fatalities.
Details were sketchy because telephone lines, Internet access and electricity apparently were cut in Banias.
Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria's National Organization for Human Rights, quoted an eyewitness who managed to flee Banias as saying people had been killed and injured. It was not clear whether they were civilians or security forces.
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 in President Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime. More than 170 people have been killed.
Assad said Sunday that the country is "moving ahead on the road of comprehensive reforms," the state-run news agency SANA said. In recent weeks, Assad has answered the protesters with both force and limited concessions that have failed to appease an emboldened movement inspired by the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Prominent human rights activist Mazen Darwish said security forces appeared to be cracking down on protesters who were gathering in Banias on Sunday. He said at least four tanks were deployed in the city, apparently to protect the oil refinery, which is the main point to export Syrian oil.
"There are demonstrations throughout the city and people are chanting against the regime," said Haitham al-Maleh, an 80-year-old lawyer and longtime rights activist who spent years as a political prisoner in Syria.
Syria's National Organization for Human Rights said one person was wounded in Banias, but there were no details.
The activists all cited Banias residents who fled the city.
The accounts could not be independently confirmed. The government has placed severe restrictions on news coverage and many journalists - including from The Associated Press - have been ordered to leave the country.
The government blames the violence on armed gangs rather than true reform-seekers and has vowed to crush further unrest, raising the risks of more bloodshed. Syria's Interior Ministry said Saturday it will not tolerate "the intentional mixing between peaceful protests and sabotage and sowing sectarian strife."
A key demand of protesters is an end to a decades-old emergency law that gives the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge.
But Assad has stopped well short of the protesters" demands. Instead, he has promised to form committees to look into reform. Other gestures include granting citizenship to thousands of Kurds, the country's long-ostracized minority, and sacking his Cabinet. Firing the government was largely symbolic, however, as the real power in Syria is concentrated around Assad and a tight coterie of family and advisers.
Also Sunday, the caretaker Syrian government eased foreigner's access to real estate in what appeared to be an attempt to attract foreign investment.
But those gestures have failed to appease a growing movement that is raising the ceiling on its demands for concrete reforms and free elections.