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Syrian naval forces pummel port city

People greet Syrian troops as they withdraw from the Damascus suburb of Saqba on Sunday. The troops were engaged in a campaign  of violence and arrests that started Saturday night and continued Sunday morning aiming to suppress protests.

Associated Press

People greet Syrian troops as they withdraw from the Damascus suburb of Saqba on Sunday. The troops were engaged in a campaign of violence and arrests that started Saturday night and continued Sunday morning aiming to suppress protests.

BEIRUT — Syrian forces for the first time deployed naval power in an attempt to quell an anti-government uprising, pummeling a coastal city that one activist described as a fortress of support for the country's rulers until nationwide protests recently grew larger there.

After seeming to cede momentum to protesters in cities like Hama and Deir al-Zour, where hundreds of thousands gathered last month, the government of President Bashar Assad has pressed a relentless offensive during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began Aug. 1. Hama in central Syria was the first target, then Deir al-Zour, in the east.

Late Saturday, forces began attacking Latakia, a city of 650,000 that serves as Syria's main port. At least 25 people were killed and perhaps 100 wounded, said activists, who added that the attacks appeared to be a response to large protests that broke out in the city on Friday.

Activists charged that they were shooting people in the streets of the impoverished Ramleh neighborhood, where many Palestinian refugees and their descendants reside.

"I have never seen anything like this," said one activist, a 28-year-old graduate student who gave the name Abu Yousef. He said he had suffered a minor gunshot wound to the shoulder over the weekend while trying to help a friend. "The offensive started at 5 a.m. and has not ceased for a second," he said by telephone, with gunfire and explosions in the background.

"The gunfire is so arbitrary. Entire buildings are being shelled with heavy artillery. The bodies stay on the streets because we are unable to leave our home and get them. They shoot and kill animals passing through the streets," he said.

The use of gunboats and tanks in Latakia on Sunday is likely to antagonize Western powers and Syria's Middle East neighbors, which have been pressing for an end to the violence. Turkish diplomats said they extracted a promise from Assad last week to curb the use of force.

President Barack Obama spoke by telephone Saturday with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who withdrew his country's ambassador to Syria a week ago to protest the violence.

A recent swelling of protest activity in Latakia may pose a special challenge to Assad. The city is the de facto capital of Syria's Alawite Muslim minority, of which Assad and his family, as well as the upper ranks of the security branches and armed forces, are members. The Shiite sect dominates politics, business and the security apparatus of a nation that is at least two-thirds Sunni Muslim.

Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

Syrian naval forces pummel port city 08/14/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 14, 2011 11:08pm]

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