Syria's Latakia under fire

16th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

Syrian forces raked Latakia with heavy machinegun fire and pressed a crackdown in the port city, activists and residents said, in defiance of international pressure on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to quit.

As the regime escalated its crackdown on pro-democracy protests, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad is "fast losing the last shreds of his legitimacy."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meanwhile urged Arab heavyweight Saudi Arabia and Syria's neighbour Turkey to press the embattled Assad to step down, after military operations in Latakia killed dozens and sent Palestinian refugees fleeing.

Since Sunday, 30 civilians have been killed in Latakia in an offensive during which Syrian gunboats went into action for the first time since the start of pro-democracy revolts in mid-March, activists said.

On Tuesday Syrian security forces targeted several neighbourhoods of the port city, according to activists and residents said they have been haunted by the relentless gunfire.

"The heavy machinegun fire and bullets were intense in areas of Latakia, Ramel, Masbah al-Shaab and Ain Tamra for more than three hours," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

It quoted residents as saying they saw 20 military vehicles and troop carriers gathering on Al-Thawra street, north of Latakia's city centre, in what could be the prelude to a new operation, while more than 100 soldiers raided the Sqanturi area and made dozens of arrests.

The Syrian official news agency SANA has denied any maritime operation and on Tuesday quoted a military official saying security forces were "hunting armed men" in Latakia districts "who opened fire on residents."

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees reported that more than half of the 10,000 refugees of Ramel camp in southern Latakia had fled under Syrian fire.

The military assault on Latakia has drawn sharp Arab and international condemnation.

Three days after US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Saudi King Abdullah jointly expressed "shared deep concerns" about the regime's use of violence, Hague poured more pressure on Syria.

"The regime's violence continues despite widespread condemnation by the international community. The calls for the violence to stop, including from Syria's neighbours, have not been heeded," Hague said in a statement.

Assad "is fast losing the last shreds of his legitimacy. He must stop the violence immediately," he said in the strongest statement yet by Britain against the Syrian leader.

His US counterpart Clinton said a call by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others for Assad to step down would be more effective than one from the United States -- suggesting Washington was not ready to do so now.

"It's not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go," Ok, fine. What's next?" Clinton said during an appearance with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the US National Defense University.

"If Turkey says it, if King Abdullah (of Saudi Arabia) says it, if other people say it, there's no way the Assad regime can ignore it," she said.

This came as Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem accused countries he did not identify of "putting pressure on Syria to stop the violence but ignoring terrorists armed groups are behind this violence," SANA reported.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu meanwhile said Ankara is opposed to any foreign intervention in Syria and Defence minister Ismet Yilmaz denied media reports that Turkey was planning to create a buffer zone on its border with Syria.

Syria's key regional ally Iran also warned on Tuesday that any Western intervention in the "internal affair" of Damascus would stoke "public hatred" in the region.

Latakia residents meanwhile spoke of relentless gunfire.

"We have become used to sleeping and waking up to the sound of gunfire every day. The shooting usually comes from security forces based on rooftops of the surrounding schools," Yamam Alsham, from Al-Slaibeh suburb, told AFP.

Another resident, who gave his name only as Tariq, said the security forces had cut off electricity and severed landline connections and were targeting Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods such as Sqanturi, Slaibeh and Tabiyat.

An activist in the central city of Homs said security forces opened fire Tuesday in the suburbs of Bab Sibaa and Bayada, where they were also searching homes.

He said the death toll from military operations in Homs and nearby Hula town had mounted to 12 since Monday, while the Observatory said two people shot by security forces died of their injuries at dawn on Tuesday.

Meanwhile an AFP journalist on a government tour of the eastern oil hub of Deir Ezzor said dozens of army vehicles left the city Tuesday after a 10-day operation, which activists said killed 32 people.

"The army conducted a quick and sensible operation in Deir Ezzor in order to restore stability and calm at the request of residents," who complained of "armed groups," an officer told reporters.

Hours later the Syrian Observatory reported heavy gunfire in one area of Deir Ezzor where "hundreds of people took to the streets on Takaya Street demanding the fall of the regime."

Syria has repeatedly said it is battling "armed gangs" -- a claim denied by rights groups who say the crackdown has killed 1,827 civilians since mid-March, while 416 security forces have also died.

In the first two weeks of August, since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, 260 people, including 14 women and 31 children, have been killed, according to a count by the protest coordinating committees.


© 2011 AFP

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