|Protesters clash with riot police in Duma, a suburb of Damascus, on Friday
They are known to the locals of Lattakia as the ghosts - al-Shabeha - but when these phantoms dress up it is in black and their terror is tangible.
In a port city dominated by Sunni Muslims, who comprise three quarters of the Syrian population, and surrounded by mountain villages that are home to Alawites, a minority that has ruled over the country for 40 years, these roaming gangs of black-clothed thugs have turned peaceful protests calling for freedom into deadly chaos.
Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, warned in a speech this week that such gangs are part of a foreign plot to drive a wedge between Syria's different religious and ethnic communities. But in interviews with residents, journalists and eyewitnesses in Lattakia almost all say the same thing: Shabeha are almost exclusively Alawites from the region, described by one reliable source as the private militia of the Assad family itself.
The spectre of chaos
Straddling Iraq to its east, which descended into sectarian slaughter after the US-led invasion, and Lebanon to its west, where competing religious identities fuelled a 15-year civil war, the spectre of sectarian strife looms large in Syria's national psyche.
As well as Sunnis and Alawites, the country has a sizeable Christian minority, Druze and Ismailis. The largest ethnic minority are Kurds, some 300,000 of whom live without Syrian citizenship - fuelling a desire among some to breakaway and join neighbouring Kurdistan.
The fear of Syria splintering into rival communities has been used by the regime as a key justification for its iron grip on the country.
"The president has said Lattakia is a sectarian problem firstly to get carte blanche to quell it - no-one wants to see a new Iraq," said a local political analyst who did not want to be named. "And second in order to mobilise minorities, Alawites, Christians and Druze out of fear of life under a Sunni majority. They argue it's the regime or the Muslim Brotherhood."
Yet eyewitnesses to the pro-democracy protests in Lattakia over the past fortnight insist they began with both Sunnis and Alawites calling for change together.
"The protesters were chanting 'freedom, freedom' and 'no Sunni and Alawites, we are all Syrians'," said Hiam Gamil, a youth activist in Lattakia.
A trusted source who has been gathering reporting from Syria since the uprising began on March 18 said: "It is not sectarian - this is the great lie of the regime. In video you see Sunni and Alawite walking side-by-side calling for reform."
A video uploaded to YouTube on March 28 appears to show a meeting of residents of the Lattakia neighbourhood of Assalibiya discussing the crackdown on their protest movement, although its contents cannot be independently verified.
"They are lying to you when they say there will be sectarian war in the country. The priority now is to define our demands and who will represent us," a man standing on a platform addresses the crowd.
A second man speaks: "Yesterday the TV said we killed two security men, to show that we are terrorists. But yesterday we caught two security men trying to create chaos and we handed them to the governor."
Ghosts on the streets
Witnesses and journalists in Lattakia say that during protests in the city members of the shabeha have been used to instigate and fuel violence against protestors, in what many consider to be an attempt by the regime to divide the local Sunni and Alawite communities.
"The protesters were chanting 'peaceful, peaceful' while another group of people stood at the end of the street dancing to songs praising the president," said a resident of Lattakia, an Alawite, who witnessed a protest last week.
"After a while, the two sides began fighting without any security forces or army present. Then there were people from both sides dropping dead from sniper shots. From both sides, those with the regime and the protestors."
Only then did members of an official Syrian security force arrive on the scene, said the witness, but rather than tackle the gunmen on the rooftops they also shot at the pro-democracy protestors.
After that the streets were left to the shabeha. "We saw cars with armed men in the streets shooting at people indiscriminately - Alawite, Sunni, pro-regime or against the regime, everyone," the eyewitness said, describing the city as being "in a state of terror".
"The regime has made sure that no-one goes down and protests in Lattakia. They made an irreparable split with great ease .... They split Lattakia in two and the tension will remain. The excuse of sectarian conflict succeeded, greatly succeeded, unfortunately."
As many predicted, the authorities later claimed the fighting in Lattakia had been instigated by outsiders. "It is obvious Syria is the target of a project to sow sectarian strife to compromise Syria," said Buthaina Shaaban, the president's advisor.
Ali, a middle-aged Sunni shopkeeper from Lattakia, described a separate demonstration last Friday in which hundreds of worshippers had taken to the streets following prayers to call for freedom and pledge their support to the people of Daraa, the southern border city where the protest movement began.
He said plain clothes agents had turned the peaceful protest violent, triggering an armed crackdown by official security forces.
"Hundreds of security men in plain clothes demonstrated against us shouting pro-Assad slogans. They came close to us and started to push us," said Ali. "It was then that the security forces began to fire on us. We were demonstrating in a peaceful and civilian way and shouting national slogans. None of us were shouting anti-Alawite slogans."
A local journalist who says he has spoken to 10 residents of Lattakia over the past week said they had all delivered the same message about who the agitators roaming the streets were. "All of them are saying one thing: 'They are shabeha'," he said.
A Syrian political expert, who declined to be named, said he had no doubt the shabeha had been used on the streets of Lattakia. "They are the ones who are on the streets shooting people," he said. "It's a kind of out-sourcing: They are the regime, but they're not the regime. The regime doesn't want to take the risk of using an official security body to start the shooting of protestors."
Syria's state news agency has blamed the deaths of protestors on "armed gangs," but has not explained why these gangs, little seen until now in the tightly policed state, have yet to target any of the large, exclusively pro-regime rallies.
Divide and rule?
Having emerged in the 1970s, when Hafez al-Assad, the president's father, took power, the shabeha are nothing new to many Syrians but remain largely unknown to those outside the country.
According to a number of experts on Syria, the shabeha have easy access to arms through their close ties to Syria's military and security forces, hail from the mountain stronghold of Qardaha, which overlooks Lattakia, and answer to the orders of local Assad family elders.
The gang's wealth, according to sources, comes from distributing goods imported tax free through Lattakia's port, which they control. During the 1980s they were reported to be heavily involved in smuggling drugs from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
In a widely viewed video on YouTube, which cannot be independently verified, a group described by Syrians as shabeha are seen beating a man local media reported as Abdel Majid Saadoun, the head of a private Syrian university. "Are you trying to get one over the Assad family?" shout the attackers as the man cowers on the ground.
Local journalists said Saadoun had been attacked last October because he refused to allow the entry of a female student, a member of the Assad family, when she arrived to take an exam after it had already begun.
Mass protests demanding freedom broke out across Syrian cities again on Friday, beginning in Kurdish majority Qamishli in the north-east and spreading through the desert of Deir Ezzour across the central plains to Homs, west to the port city of Banias, down to the south at Daraa and to the suburbs of Damascus.
At least four people were killed after snipers on rooftops opened fire on a group of demonstrators calling for freedom in the Damascus suburb of Duma. Across the capital, groups of plain clothes security roamed the city armed with homemade bats. Sanamen, the southern city where at least 10 protestors were killed by security forces last Friday, was sealed off by the military.
Local activists have documented the killing by security forces of more than 150 Syrians in the armed crackdown against the unprecedented wave of protests against the regime.
But if the shabeha are seeking to divide, the protestors appear fully aware of the dangers.
"One, one, one!" chanted hundreds of worshippers trapped inside Damascus' Al-Rifai mosque on Friday, after security forces refused to let them leave following prayers, fearing mass demonstrations. But that did not stop their voices being heard. "People of Syria are one," they cried.
Source: Al Jazeera