Syrian forces use naval power
Gunboats shell site of recent protests; at least 25 killed
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.
The use of gunboats and tanks in Latakia on Sunday is likely to antagonize Western powers and Syria’s Middle East neighbors, who have been pressing for an end to the violence. Turkish diplomats said they extracted a promise from President Bashar Assad last week to curb the use of force.
Instead, the violence appears to have increased, especially in major cities – a possible sign that the country’s rulers feel they have little time left to crush the rebellion before they face harsher punishment from the international community.
Witnesses and activists said fire from gunboats and tanks shook the southern parts of religiously mixed Latakia starting just before dawn. At least 25 people were killed and perhaps 100 wounded, said the activists, who added that the attacks appeared to be a response to large protests that broke out in the city on Friday.
For a second day in a row, uniformed and plainclothes security officials stormed parts of the city. 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 received 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. “They kill every cat or pigeon they see. The smell of death is around us.”
Security forces on Saturday also stormed several Damascus suburbs to squelch protests after Ramadan prayer services and funeral marches for slain protesters.
Syrian state media denied the use of warships on the city despite amateur video footage posted by opposition activists to the Internet and broadcast on pan-Arab news channels that showed at least one gray naval gunboat hovering off the city’s shore. Activists alleged that two or three naval vessels were deployed against Latakia.