Syria came under sharp Arab and international condemnation on Tuesday after activists said gunboats pounded Latakia port, forcing thousands of Palestinians to flee a refugee camp, as rights groups said that civilian death toll there has mounted to 34.
As activists reported new deaths at the camp, the Palestinians condemned Syria over the violence and the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) reported that more than 5,000 refugees had fled the Ramel camp in southern Latakia under fire, according to AFP.
The United States, however, said it was unable to confirm the reports of the Syrian navy shelling Latakia, in what would amount to an escalating bid to crush pro-democracy protests.
Palestine Liberation Organization secretary general Yasser Abd Rabbo said the attack on Ramel was “part of the crimes against humanity” targeting Palestinians and Syrians alike.
Jordan, adding its voice to a 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.
US President Barack Obama said his Syrian counterpart Bashar Al Assad has lost his legitimacy and his people “will be better off without him,” the White House spokesman said, according to AFP.
Syrians deserve "peaceful transition"
President Assad “has to cease the systematic violence, mass arrests, and the outright murder of his own people,” Jay Carney told reporters.
“The Syrian people deserve a peaceful transition to democracy; they deserve a government that doesn’t torture them, arrest them and kill them.”
But as the uprising turned five months old, the violence continued unabated.
Troops and tanks clamped down on Monday on the flashpoint province of Homs, targeting the provincial town of Hula where snipers shot dead an elderly man, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The Britain-based group said four other people were killed in Latakia, including two as they tried to escape the Ramel district.
“The community of Hula is under siege... The army is carrying out raids and arrests under the cover of heavy gunfire,” the rights group said.
“Security agents encircled all the entrances to Hula and they started shooting to terrify local residents,” it said.
The Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union, a grassroots activists’ group, said six people, including Ahmad Soufi, 22, were killed in Latakia on Monday, bringing the civilian death toll there to 34, including a two-year-old girl, according to Reuters.
Another rights group said “a large number of tanks entered Hula this morning.”
“Shelling has renewed on Al Raml Al Filistini (home to Palestinian refugees) 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 asked not to be named, said by telephone, according to Reuters.
“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 said.
The operation came a day after gunboats joined the pounding of Latakia that killed as many as 26 people, in the first attack from the sea since Syria’s anti-regime revolt erupted on March 15, activists said.
The official SANA news agency denied the naval attack and said security forces were battling “armed gangs” in Latakia.
The United States also said Monday it could not confirm the naval attack.
“We have been unable to confirm actually the use of naval assets,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters, adding the “jury is still out” on whether or not Syrian warships opened fire.
She added there were “some inconsistencies” in the reporting on the alleged incident but did not elaborate.
“However, we are able to confirm that there is armor in the city and that there is firing on innocents again, in the pattern of carnage that you have seen in other places,” she said.
Many residents were allowed to flee the worst-hit districts of Latakia at dawn, but soldiers opened fire at a checkpoint, killing a man, and a woman also died when her car was hit as she tried to leave Ramel, the Observatory said.
The watchdog said two other people were confirmed killed but that the death toll could rise because security forces hosed three other neighborhoods in the city with heavy machine gun fire at sunset.
“There are reports of martyrs but we cannot confirm them,” it said.
One Latakia resident, declining to be identified, told AFP: “The shooting is coming from security forces on rooftops. They open fire for no reason--we can’t hear any other side shooting back at them.”
Latakia's economic role
Unlike most Syrian cities, which are mainly Sunni, Latakia has a large Alawite population, partly because President Assad and his father before him encouraged Alawites to move from their nearby mountain region by offering them cheap land and jobs in the public sector and security apparatus.
Latakia port has played a key role in the Assad family’s domination of the economy, with Bashar Al 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.
Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA which helps Palestinian refugees, said “between 5,000 and 10,000 people have fled” Ramel. “We need to get in there and find out what the hell is going on.”
“We have called on the Syrian government to give us expeditious and unhindered access for humanitarian workers,” Mr. Gunness added.
The PLO’s Abd Rabbo told AFP: “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.”
The attack on Ramel is considered “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.
Syria's neighbors Jordan and Turkey called for an immediate end to the violence.
Jordanian Prime Minister Maaruf Bakhit telephoned his Syrian counterpart Adel Safar and told him “Syria should listen to reason and start implementing reforms,” the state news agency Petra reported from Amman.
“World anger and rejection of the bloodshed in Syria are growing,” he said.
"Final word" from Turkey
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu said Syria’s crackdown on dissent had “intensified” despite his talks last week with Mr. Assad in Damascus.
“This is our final word to the Syrian authorities, our first expectation is that these operations stop immediately and unconditionally,” Mr. Davutoglu said in Turkey’s strongest warning yet to its once close ally and neighbor, Reuters reported.
“If these operations do not stop, there will be nothing left to say about the steps that would be taken,” he told a news conference in Ankara, without elaborating.
Turkish leaders, who have repeatedly urged President Assad to end violence and pursue reforms, have grown frustrated. Mr. Davutoglu held talks with the Syrian leader in Damascus only last week.
Meanwhile the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group of activists, reported that 260 people, including women and children, have been killed since Ramadan began on August 1.
Syria has repeatedly said it is battling “armed gangs”--a claim denied by rights groups who say the crackdown has killed 1,827 civilians since mid-March, while 416 security forces also died.
The UN Security Council is due to hold a special meeting on Thursday on Syria, and Human Rights Watch said it had sent a message to Arab League chief Nabil Al Arabi urging him to convene an “emergency meeting on Syria.”
Washington wants Europe and China to consider sanctions on Syria’s vital oil and gas industry. Germany called for more European Union sanctions against Syria on Monday and urged the UN Security Council to discuss the crackdown again this week.
The Philippines on Tuesday advised around 17,000 citizens in Syria, most of whom are working as domestic helpers, to leave the Middle Eastern country due to rising violence, saying it would cover the costs of their evacuation, Reuters reported.
Raul Hernandez, head of public information office at the Department of Foreign Affairs, said the Philippine embassy in Damascus had been ordered to “intensify efforts to reach out to Filipinos and convince them that now is the time to consider leaving Syria.”
In February, the Philippines evacuated workers in Libya, but less than half of an estimated 26,000 people there have returned. Dozens of Filipinos in tsunami-hit areas in Japan were also repatriated in March.