Syria unrest: Assault on Latakia port intensifies

Activist Alexander Page (not his real name) says troops are shooting "anything that moves"

Syrian forces are continuing their crackdown on protesters in the port city of Latakia for a third day, reportedly using tanks and gunboats.

Activists say at least 30 people have died since Saturday, and that residents trying to flee the city's Ramel district have been fired on by troops.

The government in Damascus says it is tackling armed terrorist gangs.

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

'Shooting is intense'

The Ramel quarter and neighbouring areas are said to be under constant heavy gunfire on Monday as tanks and troops move through the streets.

The assault began on Saturday, a day after mass anti-government protests in the city.

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.

On Sunday, activists said Syrian warships had joined the attack, firing shells on the city.

One resident of Ramel told Associated Press news agency: "We are being targeted from the ground and the sea. The shooting is intense. We cannot go out. They are raiding and breaking into people's homes."

He said that at least three gunboats were taking part and mosques had been targeted.

A Syrian military official on Monday denied as "absolutely baseless" reports that gunboats had fired on Latakia, Syria's official Sana news agency reported.

A UK-based Anglican priest who is visiting his family in Latakia said the atmosphere in the city was extremely tense.

"[On Sunday] you could hear a lot of shooting and bombing from different parts of the city," the Reverend Nadim Nassar told the BBC. "The whole city is now shut... the fear is very high and people don't know what's going on and what is next," he said.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least one young child had been killed.

State television denied any shelling had happened.

It said the security forces were fighting armed gangs who had set up barricades and were shooting from rooftops.

The government said three members of the security forces were killed and 40 wounded in clashes. It interviewed some of the city's residents in other places who called on the army to clear out the "terrorist gangs".

Activists deny that their movement is armed but said at least one officer and a number of soldiers had defected to join the uprising.

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

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

Meanwhile, newspapers in the region have expressed anger about Arab states' failure to respond to events in that country.

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

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

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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