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Syrian troops move to seaside city

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Troops in tanks and armored vehicles entered a key oil-industry city on Syria's Mediterranean coast Saturday, taking up positions in a hilltop Crusader castle and cutting off power and phone lines.

An activist said three women protesting the crackdown were shot dead.

The move against Banias, which had become a bastion of anti-regime protests in recent days, signals an expanding campaign by President Bashar Assad aimed at crushing the country's seven-week nationwide uprising.

Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights said the three women were protesting the siege and the cutting of power lines when they were shot dead by plainclothed security forces or pro-government gunmen.

Saturday's shooting occurred near al-Marqab, about a mile southeast of Banias.

The events in Banias, a day after security forces killed 30 people in nationwide protests, came on the heels of a large-scale military operation in the flashpoint southern city of Daraa. The 11-day siege, in which about 50 residents were killed, triggered international outrage and condemnation.

The United States has already targeted three top Syrian officials as well as Syria's intelligence agency and Iran's Revolutionary Guard with sanctions over the crackdown. The European Union is expected to place sanctions on Syrian officials, and the UN said Saturday it is sending a team into Syria to investigate the situation.

An eyewitness said soldiers deployed in Banias early Saturday on tanks and armored vehicles. The witness and activists said the army is now occupying the hilltop Marqab Castle, an 11th century Crusader fortress overlooking Banias. Several gunboats were seen off the coast.

He said electricity and phone lines had been cut off, and residents were charging their mobile phones on car batteries.

The Banias deployment came just hours after Friday's confrontations between security forces and protesters. A leading Syrian human rights activist said security forces killed 30 people across the country; Syria's state-run media said 11 soldiers and policemen were killed in Homs.

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