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Heavy fire in Homs, five months into Syria uprising

“The community of Hula is under siege ... The army is carrying out raids and arrests under the cover of heavy gunfire” in Homs province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. - AFP (File Photo)

DAMASCUS: Syrian troops backed by tanks clamped down Monday on the flashpoint province of Homs, a day after gunboats joined an assault that killed more than 20 people in Latakia city, activists said.

“The community of Hula is under siege ... The army is carrying out raids and arrests under the cover of heavy gunfire” in Homs province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

As the uprising which has spread across Syria turned five months old on Monday, another rights monitoring group said “a large number of tanks entered Hula this morning.”

Security agents encircled all the entrances to Hula and they started shooting to terrify local residents. Then the army went in to make raids and arrests,” said the Observatory.

It said pro-regime militiamen and security agents were deployed on all roads and in villages around Hula to erase anti-government graffiti from the walls.

The operation came a day after gunboats joined the pounding of the port city of Latakia that killed as many as 26 people, in the first attack from the sea since Syria's anti-regime revolt erupted March 15, according to activists.

President Bashar al-Assad has appointed a new governor for Aleppo province in northern Syria, the state news agency SANA announced on Monday.

The decree followed the naming of new governors for Homs and Hama in the centre of the country as well as for Daraa in the south, scene of the first major bloodshed of the uprising.

SANA also ran a denial that the navy had attacked Latakia, however, quoting its correspondent in the Mediterranean city as saying security forces had battled gunmen.

Activists said four more people were killed elsewhere on Sunday.

The Syrian Observatory said at least 23 people died and dozens more were wounded in Latakia, while the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria (NOHRS) put the death toll at 26.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory said the vessels opened up with heavy machine guns.

“In unprecedented action... the Syrian regime used navy boats to shell innocent civilians in the province of Latakia,” the NOHRS said in a statement, backing up the report.

It provided a list of 26 victims - including two Palestinian men from the Ramel refugee camp in southern Latakia - and said one more person was killed in Homs and another in Idlib, northwest Syria.

A spokesman for the UN refugee agency UNRWA, Chris Gunness, said reports from the Ramel camp spoke of “fire from tanks which have encircled the area as well as fire from ships at sea.” He called on the Syrian authorities “to order their troops to exercise maximum restraint,” and demanded “access for humanitarian workers to tend to the injured and dying.”

SANA, quoting its Latakia correspondent, denied naval vessels had opened fire on the city.

“Law enforcement members are pursuing armed men who are using machine guns, grenades and bombs in Ramel from rooftops and from behind barricades,” it said.

The head of medical services in Latakia was quoted as saying that two members of the security forces were killed and 41 others wounded “while chasing armed men.”

On Saturday, the military killed at least two people and wounded 15, also in Ramel, a nerve centre of protests calling for the fall of Assad, according to the Syrian Observatory.

On Saturday, US President Barack Obama, Saudi King Abdullah and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron called for an “immediate” end to the Syrian government's deadly crackdown.

The violence has killed around 2,200 people, including some 400 members of the security forces, according to rights activists. Syrian authorities have blamed the bloodshed on armed gangs and Islamist militants.

The UN Security Council is due to hold a special meeting on Thursday to discuss human rights and the humanitarian emergency in Syria.

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