Clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors in the country's northwest killed four people Tuesday, while gunmen shot dead a political activist in the latest in a wave of targeted killings in a rebellious central city, activists said.
The violence, which stretched from the north of the country to the south, demonstrated the increasingly militarized nature of the uprising and heightened fears that Syria may be sliding toward civil war more than six months since the revolt against President Bashar Assad's regime began.
The worst of the fighting Tuesday was centered in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in northwest Syria, where clashes have taken place for months.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said three soldiers and one civilian were killed in fighting there between government troops and army defectors.
In the south, defectors also attacked an army checkpoint in the village of Dael, wounding one officer, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network.
Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso said government troops were also conducting military operations in the town of Talbiseh in central Syria. Talbiseh is near the town of Rastan, which army troops backed by tanks retook last week after five days of heavy fighting with defectors.
Syria's six-month opposition movement has focused on peaceful demonstrations, although recently there have been reports of protesters taking up arms to defend themselves against military attacks. Assad's crackdown has killed some 2,700 people since mid-March, according to a U.N. estimate.
The observatory said gunmen killed Communist activist Mustafa Ahmad, 52, in Homs late Monday. The killing came a day after gunmen killed the son of Syria's state-appointed cleric, Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun.
Ahmad's killing was the latest in a series of targeted executions of prominent people, including a nuclear engineer, university professors and physicians. The men, a mix of Alawites, Christians and Shiites, were all killed in a hail of bullets in the past week, most of them in central Homs province _ one of the hotbeds of anti-government protests.
The regime has accused "terrorist gunmen" of the killings, while the opposition in turn accused the regime of trying to foment sectarian strife to maintain its grip on power.
Syria's volatile sectarian divide means that an armed conflict could rapidly escalate in scale and brutality. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Alawite dominance has bred resentments, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity for the state.
Assad has exploited fears of a civil war fears by portraying himself as the only power who can keep the peace.
Rights activist Osso and a Syrian opposition figure, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals, said 21-year Bushra Zein was abducted Monday in Homs by men who appeared to be plainclothes police.
The motive behind the abduction was not clear but both said she is a distant relative of prominent Syrian opposition figure Bourhan Ghalioun, who announced the founding of the Syrian National Council. Sunday's announcement in Istanbul appeared to be the most serious step yet to unify a deeply fragmented opposition.
Besides the toll in human life, Syria's turmoil has battered its economy. The tourism industry, one of the main earners of hard currency, has been decimated.
The United States and the European Union have also imposed several rounds of sanctions against Assad and his regime, including a ban on the import of Syrian oil. Most of Syria's oil exports had gone to Europe. Now, Damascus is forced to look for buyers in the east.
In an attempt to preserve foreign currency reserves that stand at more than $17 billion, the government banned the importation of luxury items and manufactured goods such as cars two weeks ago. It targeted goods with a customs duty of more than 5 percent.
On Tuesday, the government reversed the ban after it led to a spike in local prices, the state-run SANA news agency said.
Minister of Economy and Trade Mohammed Nidal al-Shaar told state TV that the decision to ban imports "had negative effects more than we expected."
He said that to protect the reserves, the central bank will only pay for imports of food stuffs and other products for the country's industry while the private sector will pay for its own imports.
Assad spent years shifting the economy away from the socialism and state-control espoused by his father and helped boost a new and vibrant merchant class that transformed Syria's economic landscape.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue