Middle East

Syria unrest: Palestinian refugees flee camp, says UN

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

Thousands of Palestinian refugees have been forced to flee a camp in the Syrian port of Latakia amid shelling by government troops, the UN says.

A spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works agency (Unrwa) told the BBC that more than 5,000 of the 10,000 refugees were on the move.

He said at least four people had died, urging immediate access to the site.

Some 30 people have reportedly died in Latakia in a three-day military attack. Syria says it is tackling gangs.

On Monday, there were also reports of a clampdown in the capital Damascus, with people being arrested randomly in the Jobar district.

Image caption Syrian troops have now taken control of Latakia's Ramel district, activists say

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned Syria that military operations against protesters must stop "immediately and unconditionally".

Ankara, a former close ally of Damascus, has been increasingly frustrated with its crackdown of the unrest.

The Palestinian authorities urged the Syrian government to safeguard the lives of Palestinian refugees.

In Washington, White House spokesman John Carney said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must "cease the systematic violence, mass arrests and the outright murder of his own people."

More than 1,700 people have reportedly died and more than 30,000 have been detained in the five-month uprising against President Assad's rule.

'Alarming' situation

On Monday, Unrwa spokesman Christopher Gunness told the BBC that more than 5,000 Palestinian refugees from the camp in Latakia's al-Ramel district and surrounding areas had already fled.

"We have no idea where these people are, we have no idea how many of them are wounded, are dying, are elderly, are women, are children," he said.

He said that at least four people were confirmed dead and nearly 20 were injured.

Mr Gunness added that some refugees had been told by the Syrian government to leave the camp.

He described the situation in the camp as "alarming", calling on Damascus to grant Unwra immediate access to the site to establish "what is going on".

However, similar appeals in the past have been ignored in the past by the Syrian government, the BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut says.

Mr Gunness also said that reports from the site suggested that the Syrian military was using tanks and gunboats.

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

Activists on the ground said later on Monday that Syrian troops had taken control of the Ramel district.

'Terrorist gangs'

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

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

One resident of Ramel told the 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."

A UK-based Anglican priest who is visiting his family in Latakia said earlier that 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," he said.

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

Syria's state TV 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.

Diplomatic pressure

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 Syria.

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

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

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.

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.

In recent weeks protesters have also been targeted in Homs, Hama, Deir al-Zour in the east, Deraa in the south and Aleppo and Idlib near Turkey's border.

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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