Tanks surround Maarat al-Numan ahead of military offensive, prompting an exodus of residents from the northern town.
Syrian security forces have shot dead at least 17 people, including a 16-year-old boy, during fresh anti-government protests, activists say.
The Local Co-ordination Committee, a group that documents the demonstrations, said nine people were killed in the central city of Homs; two in Harasta, a suburb of the capital Damascus; one in the northern city of Aleppo; and a teenager in the southern village of Dael. All the deaths occurred on Friday.
Fresh protests were also reported from Hama, Deraa, Der al-Zour, Jableh and other cities after morning prayers on Friday.
An activist said security forces had opened fire on protesters in the coastal city of Baniyas.
“There was intense firing to disperse the demonstrations in Baniyas and there were casualties” among the protesters, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, told the AFP news agency.
Other activists reported that heavy machine gunfire had been heard in the Bab Tudmor area in Homs, and witnesses said security forces had dispersed a protest in Latakia.
Syrian state television reported that a policeman was killed and more than 20 were wounded when “armed groups” opened fire at them.
Six police officers were also wounded in the eastern town of Deir el-Zour when assailants attacked a police station there, the report said.
In full control
Earlier, Mustafa Osso, a Syria-based rights activist, said a large numbers of soldiers had entered the northern town of Maarrat an-Numan early on Friday morning.
Omar Idilbi, another activist, said troops were in full control of the town, which the army surrounded a day earlier along with nearby Khan Shaykhun on the main north-south road linking Damascus and Aleppo.
Tensions were also reported in neighbouring Lebanon, where about 600 people protested against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, in the northern coastal city of Tripoli.
|Video uploaded on YouTube by an anti-government group purportedly shows protesters facing tanks in Dael [AFP]|
Six people were killed and several injured in the clashes in the city between Sunnis and Alawites after protests against the Assad government, a Lebanese security official said.
The unrest broke out in the sensitive Bab Al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighbourhoods where Sunni Muslims and Alawites – an offshoot of Shia Islam – have often clashed.
Among the dead were a Lebanese army soldier, an official from the Alawite party and a 14-year-old Sunni boy.
The army was deployed heavily around the two neighbourhoods to prevent an escalation, but residents were already starting to leave, seeking safety elsewhere.
The army said in a statement that its soldiers had come under fire and that it was “conducting searches to arrest the armed men and to restore order”.
Despite the military presence, shots were heard and armed men from both sides could still be seen on the street.
Targeted asset freeze
Friday’s violence came as European Union officials confirmed they were planning to add more firms and a dozen people to a list of targeted asset freezes and travel bans that already includes President Assad and key allies.
“France supports an expansion of the European sanctions against Syria to economic entities,” Bernard Valero, a French foreign ministry spokesman, said.
He said Syrian banks and private firms linked to regime figures could be hit.
Earlier, Ban Ki-moon, the UN chief, appealed to the Syrian president to halt the crackdown on demonstrations.
“I again strongly urge President Assad to stop killing people and engage in inclusive dialogue and take bold measures before it’s too late,” he said in Brazil on Thursday.
Makhlouf quits business
Friday’s protests came a day after Rami Makhlouf, a businessman cousin of President Assad and focus of popular anger, announced he was quitting business and moving to charity works.
In a statement, Makhlouf said he took the decision to quit because he no longer wants “to be a burden on Syria, its people and its president”.
Makhlouf will channel his wealth into charity and development projects, according to Syrian television.
“As for his businesses, they will be directed so that they … create jobs and support the national economy. He will not enter into any new project that [brings] him personal gain,” the report said on Thursday.
Makhlouf controls several businesses including Syriatel, the country’s largest mobile phone operator, duty free shops, an oil concession, airline company and hotel and construction concerns, and shares in at least one bank.
State news agency SANA quoted Makhlouf as saying he will put his 40 per cent holding in Syriatel up for sale in an initial public offering, with profits allocated to humanitarian work and families of those killed in the unrest.
Offices of Syriatel were some of the first buildings to be torched by demonstrators as protests first erupted in Deraa in mid-March, as the company and Makhlouf are seen as symbols of Syria’s widespread corruption.
Makhlouf has been subject to US sanctions since 2007 for what the US calls public corruption, as well as EU sanctions imposed in May, but repeatedly maintained he is a legitimate businessman whose firms employ thousands of Syrians.
The announcement of Makhlouf’s new plans was seen as a concession to the opposition, as protests show no signs of losing strength despite the brutal response from authorities.
Syrian rights groups say 1,300 civilians and more than 300 soldiers and police have been killed since the uprising began.
The latest focus of the crackdown has been in Idlib province in the northwest, around the town of Jisr al-Shughur where authorities say 120 security personnel were killed earlier this month.
Military operations in Idlib province have prompted more than 9,000 Syrians to stream north across the border into Turkey. An official told AFP that about 1,200 Syrians crossed into Turkey overnight Thursday to Friday.
Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught, reporting from the Altinozu camp, said refugees sheltering there had staged a peaceful demonstration.
“They came out to make sure that the world does not forget them. They have been chanting ‘Down with the Assad regime’, ‘Stop killing our children’, ‘Allah, Syria, freedom, that’s all we need’.
“But the point they are making even more than just the demonstration today is they want the international community to act.”
She said 200 refugees in Altinozu and the same amount in Yayladagi camp had started a hunger strike to get the world’s attention.
“They want the United Nations to act on behalf of the people of Syria. They want Amnesty International and other human rights organisations to investigate the disappearances, the killings, the destruction of villages.”
Thousands of people are also sheltering inside Syria close to the border.