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Syrian security forces swept into the coastal city of Banias on Tuesday, a protest leader said, taking control of another urban centre from demonstrators challenging the authoritarian rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

“They moved into the main market area. The army has sealed the northern entrance and security forces (sealed) the south,” Anas al-Shughri told Reuters.

“They armed Alawite villages in the hills overlooking Banias and we are now facing militias from the east,” he said.

Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect whose family has ruled majority Sunni Muslim Syria for 41 years, is pursuing a violent crackdown on six weeks of protests which began with demands for greater freedoms and now seek his overthrow.

Last week he sent tanks and soldiers into the southern city of Deraa, where the uprising broke out on March 18. Syrian rights groups say more than 560 civilians have been killed by security forces since the start of the unrest.

Activists said arrests continued across Syria on Tuesday. Speaking from Egypt, Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organisation of Human Rights in Syria, said the latest wave of detentions had snared more than 1,000 people.

International condemnation of the crackdown has intensified since the Deraa assault, which revived memories of the 1982 repression of an armed Islamist uprising in the city of Hama by Assad’s father, President Hafez al-Assad.

“Syria should not go through another massacre like Hama. We have reminded them of this,” Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who has sent envoys to Damascus and spoken to Assad several times during the unrest, told Turkey’s A-TV channel.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the European Union should impose sanctions on Syrian leaders including Assad in response to the violent suppression of pro-democracy protests.

Germany also repeated a call for EU sanctions. “The Syrian government’s continuing brutal actions leave the European Union no choice but to press firmly ahead with targeted sanctions against the regime,” Deputy Foreign Minister Werner Hoyer said.

Israel, which has relied on Assad and his father to keep their front line quiet for nearly four decades — despite Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights and Syria’s support for militants opposed to Israel — said Assad was losing his grip.

“I believe Assad is approaching the moment in which he will lose his authority. The growing brutality is pushing him into a corner, the more people are killed, the less chance Assad has to come out of it,” Defence Minister Ehud Barak said.

Reuters

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