Syrian naval and tank assault on Latakia kills at least 21

Military crackdown on port city continues for second straight day as Assad employs gunships and tanks to quell dissent.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
August 14, 2011 15:39
3 minute read.
Syrian tank moves through city (illustrative)

Syrian tank in Hama 311. (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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The Syrian navy shelled the main Mediterranean port city of Latakia on Sunday, as President Bashar Assad broadened a military offensive to crush street protests against his rule.

More than 20 civilians were killed on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, after security forces shot dead 20 people during nationwide marches on Friday.

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Since the beginning of the fasting month of Ramadan on August 1, Assad’s forces have stormed major urban centers and outlying regions where protests demanding political freedom and an end to Assad family rule have been attracting crowds in larger numbers.

“I can see the silhouettes of two grey vessels. They are firing their guns and the impact is landing on al-Raml, al-Filistini and al-Shaab neighborhoods,” one witness told Reuters by phone from Latakia, where tanks and armored vehicles deployed three months ago to crush dissent against Assad in mainly Sunni neighborhoods of the mixed city.

Latakia is a mostly Sunni city in the heart of a rural coastal area populated by Assad’s minority Alawite sect. The Assad family’s roots lie in the nearby village of Qardaha.

“This is the most intense attack on Latakia since the uprising. Anyone who sticks his head out of the window risks being shot. They want to finish off the demonstrations for good,” the witness said, adding that an average of 20,000 people have been rallying daily to demand Assad’s removal in different areas across the city after Ramadan night prayers.

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The 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation called on Saturday for an immediate halt to the military campaign against protesters. US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah repeated their calls for the military assaults to stop.

A United Nations official has said Assad’s forces have killed up to 2,000 civilians since the uprising began in March.

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Assad has repeatedly said Syria is facing a foreign conspiracy to divide the country of 20 million. The authorities blame “armed terrorist groups” for the bloodshed, and say 500 police and troops have been killed.

But Assad’s statements appear to have found little resonance among the majority Sunni population of Latakia, where, similar to urban centers in the rest of the country, the ruling minority has encouraged Alawites to move from their traditional mountain regions, luring them with cheap land and jobs in the public sector and the security apparatus.

The Latakia port figures highly in the ruling family’s domination of the economy, with Assad’s late uncle Jamil having been in control of the facility, and a new generation of family members and their friends subsequently taking over.

Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reported on Friday that Iran will fund a multi-million-dollar military base in Latakia to help funnel military equipment to the Assad regime. Syria is the Islamic Republic’s only close Arab ally – and a conduit for arming Hezbollah and Hamas – and Tehran has appeared deeply worried that a post- Assad Syria would mean a weakening of its role on the regional stage.

Demonstrations against Assad during the five-month uprising have been largest in the Sunni neighborhoods of Latakia, including Salibiya in the center of the city and Raml al-Filistini (Sands of Palestine) and al-Shaab on the southern shore.

Troops and tanks have been besieging the neighborhoods for months, residents say, with garbage going uncollected and electricity regularly being cut.

In March, leading Syrian opposition and civic figures, including Aref Dalila, a prominent economist from Latakia, issued a declaration denouncing sectarianism and committing to nonviolent democratic change in the wake of disturbances involving an Alawite militia loyal to Assad known as the “shabbiha.”

Dalila, an Alawite, has repeatedly warned against Latakia being used by the authorities to whip up sectarian fears among Alawites of a backlash against them if they lose power, instead of concentrating on transforming Syria into a democracy where all sects would enjoy equal treatment under a new constitution.

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