Syria unrest: 'Deadly military attack' on Latakia port

The BBC's Jim Muir: "It's the first time, for a long time, that they've used gunboats"

Syrian warships have joined a military assault on protesters in the northern port city of Latakia, activists say.

At least 19 people have been killed in the operation, according to activists and human rights groups.

Explosions and gunfire have been reported in several districts of the city which have seen large protests against the Syrian government.

More than 1,700 people have reportedly died in the six-month uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

The operation began on Saturday with armoured vehicles and troops moving in.

'Residents flee'

Some 20 tanks and personnel carriers were said to be taking part in the Latakia assault along with at least two gunboats.

One witness told Reuters news agency by telephone: "I can see the silhouettes of two grey [naval] vessels. They are firing their guns and the impact is landing on al-Ramleh, al-Filistini and al-Shaab neighbourhoods."

Analysis

Latakia was one of the cities to be caught up in the revolt soon after it erupted in mid-March. Despite repeated attempts by the regime to stifle defiance, it keeps breaking out.

It is a sensitive city. Its population is 600,000 or so, and it has a Sunni Muslim majority, as does the country, but there are also areas dominated by President Assad's minority Alawite community.

The current punishment is being meted out to mainly Sunni areas, a fact that could further aggravate sectarian tensions already sensitised by the situation.

A report on state television denied there had been any naval shelling.

Activists said at least two people were killed and 15 wounded in Saturday's attacks.

They said a large number of residents had fled the city and that telephones and internet connections had been cut off.

International journalists face severe restrictions in operating in Syria, and it is hard to verify reports.

Thousands of people were said to have come on to the streets of Latakia on Friday to demonstrate against the government.

Amateur video footage posted on the Internet also showed what appeared to be armoured personnel in the streets.

Latakia has seen many anti-government protests in the past six months.

Tens of thousands of people had come out on to the streets across the country again on Friday to protest.

The Syrian Observatory said that a large number of troops had also moved into the Saqba and Hamriya districts of the capital Damascus on Sunday, with gunfire heard in both suburbs.

Crackdown 'intensifying'

Syria has come under increased diplomatic pressure in the past week to stop its crackdown on dissent.

Map

The US has imposed sanctions on Damascus and has said these could be increased, while calling on other countries to follow.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait have all recalled their ambassadors, while Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has described the methods used by the Syrian security forces as "unacceptable".

However, it appears the crackdown has intensified, with troops storming several towns and cities.

Mr Assad has reiterated promises of political reform, while remaining adamant his government would continue to pursue the "terrorist groups" he has blamed for the unrest.

Protests have been targeted in Homs, Hama, Damascus, Deir al-Zour in the east, Deraa in the south and Aleppo and Idlib near Turkey's border.

A doctor in Hama told the BBC that medical services there had been severely affected by recent government attacks. He said two hospitals were closed and one had been stormed by troops, injuring many of the medical staff.

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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