Irregular forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired at a group of people guarding a mosque in Banias on Sunday, two witnesses said, after pro-democracy unrest flared in the coastal city.
Once-unthinkable mass protests challenging Assad's authoritarian rule has spread across Syria despite his attempts to defuse resentment by making gestures toward reforms. At least 90 people have been killed in the disturbances.
Tanks fanned out overnight in the northern district of coastal Banias, intensifying a crackdown on popular dissent now in its fourth week in the tightly controlled country.
A doctor and a university professor said a group was guarding Banias's Sunni Abu Bakr al-Siddiq mosque with sticks during morning prayers when irregulars from Syria's ruling Alawite minority, known as "shabbiha," fired at them with automatic rifles from speeding cars.
Five people were injured, including a 47-year-old man who was hit in the chest, they told Reuters.
The attack followed a demonstration of some 2,000 people in Banias on Friday when protesters shouted "the people want the overthrow of the regime" -- the rallying cry of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions that have inspired growing protests across Syria against decades of Alawite domination.
"Four people were hit in the feet and legs. The fifth sustained the most serious injury, an AK-47 bullet that went through his left chest lateral," said the doctor, who was at the scene.
"The regime is trying to show that this is a Sunni-Alawite issue, but the Sunni (Muslim) people of Banias know that only a minority of thugs are cooperating with them," said the other witness.
"Banias is a city of 50,000 people. We all know each other, and for sure we would know if there were infiltrators," he said, adding that Syrian state television was the only media allowed in Banias, similar to other flashpoints across the country.
Any spiral into instability in Syria would have wider strategic repercussions because it lies at the heart of Middle East conflict, maintaining an anti-Israel alliance with Iran and supporting the militant Hezbollah and Hamas movements.
Syria has blamed the unprecedented unrest on "armed groups" firing randomly at citizens and security forces.
Residents said earlier that tanks had deployed near the Banias oil refinery -- one of two in Syria -- near the Alawite district of Qusour, where its main hospital is located.
FLASHPOINT CITY OF DERAA DEFIANT
Assad had touted what he described as the closeness of the Syrian authorities to the people as a reason why the groundswell of Arab uprisings would not spread to Syria.
Thousands of protesters, however, have taken to the streets across the country of 20 million, denouncing what they regard as corrupt members of Assad's family.
In the southern flashpoint city of Deraa, protesters have destroyed statues of Assad family members and set fire to a building belonging to the Baath Party, in power since 1963.
In the Houla area of the central province of Homs, north of Damascus, buses were also seen unloading security personnel. A decision by Assad several days ago to sack the governor of Homs has failed to placate protesters.
Witnesses said on Saturday security forces had used live ammunition and tear gas to scatter thousands of mourners in Deraa, where protests first erupted in March, after a mass funeral for protesters killed on Friday.
The mourners had assembled near the old Omari mosque in the old quarter of Deraa, a mostly Sunni city where resentment against minority Alawite rule smoulders.
The National Organization for Human Rights in Syria said 26 protesters were killed in Deraa on Friday, after earlier reporting the deaths had occurred on Saturday.
A statement on its website on Sunday listed the names of 26 people killed in Deraa and two in Homs, and also provided the names of 13 people arrested over the last 10 days.
Syria has prevented news media from reporting from Deraa and mobile phones lines there appeared to be cut.
"ONE MAN MAKES THE DECISIONS"
Assad, a member of the Alawite sect that comprises 10 percent of Syria's population, has used the secret police, special police units, irregular loyalist forces and loyalist army units to counter the extraordinary grassroots revolt.
He has blended the use of force -- activists and witnesses say his forces have fired at unarmed demonstrators, killing dozens -- with gestures such as a pledge to replace an emergency law in force for five decades with an anti-terrorism law.
Emergency law has given free rein to security organs to stamp out public protests, and managed to throttle it for decades before a tide of pro-democracy unrest spilled into Syria from Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world this year.
Assad has said the protests are serving a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife, similar language his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, used when he crushed leftist and Islamist challenges to his rule in the 1980s, killing thousands.
In a meeting with the Bulgarian foreign minister, Assad said Syria was "on the path of comprehensive reform and was open to benefit from the expertise and experiences of European countries," according to the official SANA news agency.