|Rights campaigner says 'Sunni and mixed neighbourhoods are totally besieged now' in Baniyas, a protest hub [Reuters]
Syrian security forces have conducted a raid on Baniyas, a hub of anti-government protests, amid demands by opponents of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, that he offer elections to end the crisis.
A Syrian rights campaigner told the AFP news agency that security forces killed four women who were among about 150 people demonstrating on Saturday on the main coastal highway from Marqab village, near Baniyas, calling for the release of detained people.
"Members of the security forces asked them to leave and, when they refused to do so, they opened fire killing three of them and wounding five others who were hospitalised," the activist said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group, said security forces killed at least two others during the tank-backed army attack on Baniyas and demanded that authorities allow an independent committee to investigate the deaths.
The Syrian military confirmed that it conducted an operation in Baniyas, a Mediterranean coastal city of 50,000 people, on Saturday.
"Army units and security forces today pursued members of terrorist groups in and around Baniyas and neighbourhoods of [the southern flashpoint town of] Deraa to restore security and stability," the military official said.
"They arrested people and seized a quantity of weapons that these groups have used to attack the army and citizens and scare people."
The attack came just hours after the US, reacting to the death of 27 protesters on Friday, threatened to take new steps against Syria's rulers, drawn mostly from the Alawite sect, unless "they stopped killing and harassing their people".
The army entered Baniyas from three directions, advancing into Sunni districts but not Alawite neighbourhoods, the rights campaigner said.
Rights activists said residents of Baniyas formed human chains in a desperate bid to halt the military operation when it began around dawn.
Most communication with Baniyas has been cut but the Syrian rights campaigner said he was able to contact several residents.
"Residents are reporting the sound of heavy gunfire and seeing Syrian navy boats off the Baniyas coast. Sunni and mixed neighbourhoods are totally besieged now," the campaigner said.
Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told the Reuters news agency that regular army units were present in the centre of Baniyas but the authorities had sent special units into the northern side of the city.
"They are conducting search operation in several areas. The army has lists and looking for people based on it," he said.
"They have raided Baida, Basateen and the Baseya suburbs."
Sawasiah, another Syrian rights group, said in a statement that landline, internet and cellphone lines with Baniyas were cut as army units backed by tanks swept into its districts.
|Analysts warn of possible sectarian strife from Syria spreading throughout the region [Al Jazeera]
Against this backdrop of a bloody crackdown, an internet-based Syrian opposition group proposed that Assad offer to hold elections in six months in order to bring to an end the seven-week-old crisis.
The Syrian Revolution 2011, a Facebook group that has been a motor of the protests, urged Assad to "stop shooting at demonstrators, allow peaceful demonstrations ... release all political prisoners, allow political pluralism and free elections in six months".
In a statement posted online, it told Assad he could be the "pride of contemporary Syria" if he transformed Syria "from a dictatorship to a democracy.
"The Syrians will be grateful and it is possible to do".
The group had called for Friday's "day of defiance" demonstrations, which led to tens of thousands of people taking to the streets calling for democratic reforms.
Rights groups said 27 protesters were shot dead by security forces on Friday while the military said 10 soldiers and policemen were killed in Homs by "armed terrorist groups".
Residents of Homs, Syria's third largest city, had expected the army to attack after reporting seeing earlier this week dozens of armoured vehicles, including tanks and troops reinforcements, deployed on the outskirts.
"It looks like they are preparing to attack the town, like they did in Deraa," one activist said.
On Thursday, a convoy of 40 military vehicles pulled out of Deraa, which the Syrian military had locked down since April 25.
Dozens of people were killed during the 10-day military assault on Deraa, launched with what activists termed "indiscriminate" shelling of the town.
In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria
But General Riad Haddad, the military's political department chief, insisted troops in Deraa "did not confront the protesters".
"We continue searching for terrorists hidden in several places. As the army, we never confronted the protesters," he said.
Human rights groups say that more than 600 people have been killed and 8,000 jailed or gone missing in the crackdown on protesters since demonstrations erupted in Syria in mid-March.
The Committee of the Martyrs of the 15 March Revolution, which has been keeping a tally of the dead, puts the death toll at 708.
Syrian authorities have banned foreign media from reporting from the country. As a result of these restrictions, Al Jazeera cannot independently verify these figures.
Meanwhile, concerns remain for the welfare of Dorothy Parvaz, an Al Jazeera journalist, who has not been heard from since she arrived in the capital, Damascus, more than a week ago.