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Tension widens as unrest hits Syrian port city

DAMASCUS, Syria — A scenic seaside city echoed with gunfire Saturday as protesters defied government forces in Syria's second day of nationwide unrest, burning tires, attacking businesses and setting the offices of the ruling party aflame.

At least two people were killed by rooftop snipers in the religiously mixed Mediterranean city of Latakia, officials said, and President Bashar Assad's government of minority Alawite Muslims blamed a major Sunni cleric in Qatar for inciting the unrest.

The government also said demonstrators had attacked a police station and offices of the Baath party in the town of Tafas, 6 miles north of the southern border city of Daraa, the epicenter of more than a week of anti-government protests.

Sectarian divisions are a deeply sensitive topic in Syria, where Assad has used increased economic freedom and prosperity to win the allegiance of the prosperous Sunni Muslim merchant classes while punishing dissenters with arrest, imprisonment and physical abuse.

Assad has placed his fellow Alawites, adherents of a mystical offshoot of Shiite Islam, into most positions of power in Syria. He has built a close relationship with Iran, allowing the Shiite powerhouse to extend its influence into Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, where it provides money and weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah militants.

On Friday, Syrian troops and soldiers opened fire in at least six cities, towns and villages, killing some 15 protesters, according to witnesses.

"We are in for a long, grueling civil conflict," said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who worked on Mideast peace negotiations in six U.S. administrations. "The black box in Syria, once you open it up, has some very nasty stuff inside."

Dozens of people protested in Latakia before attacking the Baath party's offices in Syria's main Mediterranean port — a tourist draw renowned for its sandy beaches and resorts, said Ammar Qurabi, an exile in Egypt who heads Syria's National Organization for Human Rights.

Home to some half a million people, Latakia is a mix of Sunnis in its urban core, Alawites living in villages on the outskirts and small minorities of Christians, ethnic Turks and other groups.

A Syrian activist in touch with protesters in Latakia said hundreds had been demonstrating there since Friday evening, burning tires and shouting "Freedom!" A few protesters were attacking cars and shops.

Syrian presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said Qatar-based Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi had incited Sunnis to revolt with his sermon in Doha on Friday. Al-Qaradawi, who has millions of followers around the world and is seen as one of most influential voices in Sunni Islam; told his audience that, "Today the train of revolutions arrived at a station that was inevitable it would reach: the station of Syria."

Assad appeared to be trying to appease demonstrators in mostly Sunni Daraa, pulling back police and soldiers. His government also released hundreds of political prisoners in an attempt to appease demonstrators furious about the violent government crackdown on dissent.

A resident told the Associated Press by telephone that more than 1,000 people were holding a silent sit-in the al-Omari mosque, at the center of the protests there.

Tension widens as unrest hits Syrian port city 03/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 26, 2011 11:59pm]

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