AMMAN - Syrian troops raided houses in a Sunni district of the besieged port of Latakia on Wednesday, residents said, arresting hundreds of people and taking them to a stadium after a four-day tank assault to crush protests against President Bashar Assad.

Assad forces attacked al-Raml al-Filistini (Palestinian sand), named after a refugee camp built in the 1950s, at the weekend, as part of a campaign to crush a five-month uprising, which has intensified against major urban centers of protest since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Aug. 1.

RELATED:
Emboldened by uprising, Syrian clerics speak out
Turkey calls anew for end to Syria operations

This comes after United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams said in a statement to Reuters that the UN's 26 non-essential international staff members and their families had left Syria.

Williams also said he was "very concerned" at the situation in Latakia, where activists say 36 people have been killed in a military assault which was launched against parts of the coastal city on Saturday.

Latakia is of particular significance to Assad, from Syria's minority Alawite community. The 45-year-old president, a self-declared champion of the Palestinian cause, comes from a village to the southeast, where his father is buried. The Assad family, along with friends, control the city's port and its finances.

"Shelling and the sound of tank machine guns subdued today. They are busing hundreds to the Sports City from al-Raml. People who are picked up randomly from elsewhere in Latakia are also being take there," said a resident, referring to a complex that was venue for the Mediterranean Games in the 1980s.

"Tanks are continuing to deploy, they are now in the main Thawra (revolution) street," said the resident, a university student who did not want to be identified.

"The reports about detention conditions and torture are increasingly alarming. Assad is backing himself more into a corner by using more and more violence and turning more Syrians against him," a diplomat in the Syrian capital said.

Citing witnesses in Latakia, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a force of around 700 security personnel fanned across al-Raml, with houses being demolished in the neighborhood "on the pretext they lacked construction permits".

"The Sports City's stadiums are serving to house refugees and prevent them from fleeing outside Latakia, and as we have seen in other cities that were assaulted, as a detention center," Observatory Director Rami Abdelrahman told Reuters.

A Palestinian official described the military offensive in Latakia as "a crime against humanity", adding to Arab and international outrage at Assad's crackdown on popular demonstrations calling for an end to his autocratic rule.

Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger