More than 5,000 Palestinian refugees have fled a camp in the besieged Syrian city of Latakia after President Bashar Assad's forces shelled the city during a broad military assault to root out dissent, the UN said Monday.
UNRWA, the UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees, said the Palestinians fled after Latakia came under fire from gunboats cruising off the coast and ground troops attacking the city over the weekend. It was not immediately clear where the refugees were seeking shelter.
"We are calling for access to the camp to find out what is going on," said UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness. "There were 10,000 refugees in the camp and we need to find out what is happening to them."
Assad has dramatically escalated the crackdown on a 5-month-old uprising since the start of the holy month of Ramadan, when many Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Despite blistering international outrage, the regime is trying to establish firm control in rebellious areas by unleashing tanks, snipers and — in a new tactic — gunships.
Turkey's patience running thin
On Monday, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called on Syria to immediately end the bloodshed and threatened unspecified "steps" if it fails to do so.
"If the operations do not end, there would be nothing more to discuss about steps that would be taken," Davutoglu said, without elaborating.
Turkey, a former close ally of Syria, has been increasingly frustrated with Damascus' brutal crackdown. Davutoglu travelled to Syria last week and urged Assad to end the bloodshed. But Turkey, Syria's neighbour and an important trade partner, has not joined the U.S. and Europe in imposing sanctions.
The military assault in Latakia was in its third day Monday after gunboats off the coast combined with ground troops Sunday for the first time in the uprising.
A reporter speaking anonymously with CBC News to protect his safety said as many as four people had been killed, adding to a death toll of 26 from the previous two days.
The reporter said there had also been some destruction to buildings. Many shops are closed, partly out of fear and partly due to a general strike to protest the violence.
People are trying to escape the city, but are being stopped at security checkpoints, and there are rumours a woman and children were killed by security forces.
Protesters determined to continue
He said people are incredibly anxious.
"They're very very scared," he said. "Having said that, the activists that I speak to on a daily basis across the country are absolutely determined to continue. They see the latest violence, the latest bloodshed, really just demonstrating why they took to the streets in the first place."
Soldiers also stormed the area of Houla in the central city of Homs, which has seen massive protests in recent months. A sniper killed an elderly man, according to the London-based Observatory for human rights, which has a network of activists on the ground in Syria.
The group said more than 700 people have been arrested in and around Homs since the beginning of August.
The regime has banned foreign media and restricted local coverage, making it difficult to verify accounts on the ground.
The attacks in Latakia, which began Saturday, were the latest wave of a brutal offensive that shows Assad has no intention of scaling back despite international outrage and new U.S. and European sanctions.
As the gunships blasted waterfront districts Sunday, ground troops and security forces backed by tanks and armoured vehicles stormed several neighbourhoods, sending terrified women and children fleeing.
The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group that helps organize protests in Syria, also confirmed troops fired at fleeing families. It said random gunfire erupted Monday in addition to a campaign of raids and house-to-house arrests.
Refugees' homes threatened with destruction
Troops later entered small neighbourhoods in the al-Ramel Palestinian refugee camp, warning people to leave or risk their houses being destroyed, the LCC said. A witness said security forces were rounding up young men in the area and detaining them in a sports stadium nearby.
Amateur videos posted online by activists showed smoke rising from al-Ramel, the crackle of heavy gunfire and people shouting, "God is Great!"
A Syrian military official on Monday denied reports that gunboats had fired on Latakia, calling them "absolutely baseless." The official, whose comments were carried by state-run news agency SANA, said the ships were patrolling the coast "on a routine mission to prevent weapons smuggling into the country."
On Sunday, SANA said troops were pursuing "gunmen using machine-guns, hand grenades and bombs who have been terrorizing residents in the al-Ramel district."
The regime blames the unrest on a foreign conspiracy and often issues reports on its state-run media that contradict widespread witness accounts and video footage provided by witnesses.
The security forces appear to be intent on crushing dissent in Latakia, which has seen large anti-Assad protests since the Syrian uprising began in mid-March. On Friday, as many as 10,000 marched there, calling for the president's ouster.
The brutality has fueled international outrage with Syria, a hardline Arab state closely allied with Iran, and led to new sanctions against the regime by the U.S., Canada and Europe.
On Monday, Assad sacked the governor for the key northwestern province of Aleppo, Ali Mansour, and replaced him with Mowaffak Khallouf, SANA said.
No reason was given for the sacking. But while the opposition has yet to bring out the middle and upper middle classes in Damascus and Aleppo, the two economic powerhouses, protests have been building in Aleppo. Four people were killed there Friday as security forces attacked protesters.