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“They are terrorizing people,” he said. “They are regular people who are taking up the role of security forces. That’s extremely dangerous,” he said.

The government has accused armed foreign elements of working to sow sectarian strife and destabilize the country.

Syria, a predominantly Sunni country ruled by minority Alawites, has a history of suppressing dissent. Mr. Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez, crushed a Muslim fundamentalist uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, killing thousands.

Latakia is home to a potentially volatile sectarian mix of Sunnis in the urban core and the Assads’ Alawite branch of Shiite Islam in villages on its outskirts, along with small minorities of Christians, ethnic Turks and other groups.

The Latakia province has an Alawite majority.

New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the government “to hold to account those responsible for any unlawful shooting on demonstrators.”

Syria‘s authorities promise reform on TV but meet demonstrators with bullets in the streets,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should understand that these demonstrations won’t end until it stops shooting at protesters and begins to change its repressive laws and practices.”

Syria has placed tight restrictions on media coverage by sealing off certain areas and restricting visas.

On Monday, the international news agency Reuters said two of its journalists have been released by Syrian authorities two days after they were detained in Damascus.

Television producer Ayat Basma and cameraman Ezzat Baltaji, both Lebanese nationals, have returned home after being detained incommunicado, the news agency said in an article posted to its website.