Syria's Latakia under fire, sniper attacks

16th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

Syrian forces raked Latakia with machinegun fire Tuesday and pressed a crackdown in the port city that has already killed dozens and sent Palestinian refugees fleeing, activists and residents said.

"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 also 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.

Around 120 soldiers also raided the Sqanturi area and made dozens of arrests, while security forces pursued operations in other districts.

Since Sunday, 30 civilians have been killed in Latakia in an offensive that according to rights activists saw the use of gunboats by Syrian security forces for the first time since the start of pro-democracy revolts in mid-March.

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.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague slammed the embattled Syrian leader on Tuesday saying President Bashar al-Assad is "fast losing the last shreds of his legitimacy" and must stop the violence "immediately."

Palestine Liberation Organisation secretary general Yasser Abed Rabbo said on Monday the assault on Ramel camp was "part of the crimes against humanity" targeting Palestinians and Syrians alike.

Residents spoke of relentless gunfire while the pro-government Al-Watan daily said Latakia was under army control "especially after the army arrested dozens of armed men during a complicated operation."

Yamam Alsham, from Latakia's Al-Slaibeh suburb, told AFP she has been haunted by the 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," she said.

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.

"They also opened fire on the funeral of Mohammed Shraiqy and killed his brother Ahmed," and fired warning shots at worshippers leaving a mosque, he said, adding that arrests were made.

The fleeing Palestinian refugees, he said, had gathered at a sports complex in the town.

As he spoke, several explosions rocked the neighbourhood and the sound of heavy gunfire rang out. "They're firing ... bombs. It's raining bullets outside," he said.

An activist in the central city of Homs, meanwhile, said security forces opened fire on 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 30 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.

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.

After repeated Arab and international condemnation of the violence in Syria, its ally Iran warned on Tuesday that any Western intervention in the "internal affair" of Damascus would stoke "public hatred" in the region.

And on Tuesday 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.

And as Syria announced on Tuesday it has found a promising gas field in the centre of the country, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch called for sanctions to be slapped on the country's state oil and gas companies.

© 2011 AFP

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