More than 5,000 Palestinian refugees have fled a camp in the Syrian town of Latakia, a UN agency said on Monday, calling for immediate access to the site, as Syrian forces continued shelling the city’s residential districts that rose in protests against the autocratic rule of President Bashar Al Assad.
“Thousands of the refugees have fled the camp. There are 10,000 refugees there and more than half of them have fled,” said Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which helps Palestinian refugees.
“Between five and 10,000 people have fled," he said. "We need to get in there and find out what the hell is going on.”
Mr. Gunness said reports from a “broad range of sources” described attacks on the city both from sea and land.
“The signals that we get on the ground are not encouraging, you have gunboats firing into refugee camps, you have firing from the land into the refugee camps,” he said.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, condemned the violence, saying it was it was tantamount to crimes against humanity.
“We strongly condemn the operations of the Syrian forces in raiding and shelling the Palestinian Ramel Camp in Latakia and the displacement of the population,” Mr. Abed Rabbo told AFP.
“We consider these actions to be part of the crimes against humanity that have been directed at the Palestinian people and their Syrian brothers who are also the victims of this ongoing bloody campaign,” he said.
Turkey on Monday denied reports it had implicitly given the Syrian regime more time to suppress the uprising.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he told President Assad that military operations against civilians must end immediately and unconditionally, warning the Syrian president that these were Ankara’s “final words.”
“This is our final word to the Syrian authorities, our first expectation is that these operations stop immediately and unconditionally,” Mr. Davutoglu told a news conference.
“If these operations do not stop there will be nothing left to say about the steps that would be taken,” he said, without elaborating.
Turkish leaders, who once backed Assad, have repeatedly urged him to end violence and make reforms after street protests against his 11 years in power erupted five months ago.
Jordan, adding its voice to a recent chorus of Arab condemnation of the Syrian crackdown on dissent, urged Damascus to "immediately" stop the violence and "listen to reason," state-run Petra news agency reported.
But as the uprising turned five months old, the violence continued unabated.
Latakia is the latest city to be stormed after Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre by the military, the eastern city of Deir Al Zor, capital of a tribal province bordering Iraq’s Sunni heartland, and several towns in the northwestern Idlib province, which borders Turkey.
“Shelling has renewed on Al Raml Al Filistini and Al Shaab districts. There is heavy machinegun firing on Sulaibeh, Al Ashrafieh, Al Quneines and Al Ouneineh and the citadel neighborhoods,” one resident, a business owner who did not want to be further identified, said by telephone.
“People are trying to flee but they cannot leave Latakia because it is besieged. The best they can do is to move from one area to another within the city,” another witness told Reuters.
The Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union, a grassroots activists’ group, said a 22-year-old man, Ahmad Soufi, was killed by President Assad’s forces on Monday, bringing the total killed in the three-day sea and land assault on Latakia to at least 29 civilians, including a two-year-old girl.
Tanks and navy ships shelled southern parts of Latakia on Sunday, residents and rights groups said. Around 20,000 people have been rallying daily to demand Assad’s removal in different areas of the city after Ramadan evening prayers, said one witness, a university student.
The official state news agency denied that Latakia was shelled from the sea and said two police and four unidentified armed men were killed when “order preservation forces pursued armed men who were terrorizing residents ... and using machineguns and explosives from rooftops and from behind barricades.”
Unlike most other Syrian cities, which are predominantly Sunni, Latakia has a large Alawite population because of its proximity to the Alawite Mountains and because Assad and his father have encouraged Alawites to move from their traditional mountain region, offering them cheap land and jobs in the public sector and security apparatus.
Latakia port figures highly in the Assad family domination of the economy, with President Assad’s late uncle Jamil having been in virtual control of the facility, and a new generation of family members and their friends taking over.
Rights campaigners said Mr. Assad forces also assaulted villages in the Houla Plain north of the city of Homs on Monday, carrying out house-to-house raids and arrests, adding to at least 12,000 who have been detained since the uprising and thousands of people already held as political prisoners before then.
President Assad replaced the governor of the northern province of Aleppo on Monday, the Syrian official news agency said, following the break out of pro-democracy protests in Aleppo city, Syria’s main commercial hub and capital of the province,
“The minority regime is playing with fire. We are coming to a point where the people in the street will rather take any weapon they can put their hand on and fight than be shot at, or arrested and humiliated,” one activist said.
“We are seeing civil war in Syria, but it is one-sided. The hope is for street protests and international pressure to bring down the regime before it kills more Syrians and drives them to take up arms,” he added.