Syrian army enters tense port city

AFP , Sunday 27 Mar 2011

Snipers kill four in Latakia overnight as authorities and state media in Syria attribute the recent uprisings and violence to factors other than people's anger

Anti-Syrian government protesters, shout slogans as they protest after Friday prayers at Omayyad mosque, in Damascus, Syria, Friday 25 March 2011. (Reuters)

Syrian troops on Sunday entered the northern city of Latakia where snipers killed four people keeping tensions high in the country despite reform pledges by the embattled government.

"The army entered Latakia... to put an end to the destruction and the murders," the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper reported.

Al-Watan said two security services officers were killed on Saturday and 70 troops wounded in Latakia, 350 kilometres (220 miles) northwest of the capital Damascus.

A high-ranking Syrian official said snipers had shot and killed two passers-by Saturday in the scenic port, one of Syria's most developed areas and a multi-confessional city.

Authorities have accused Palestinian refugees from a nearby camp of wanting to fuel sectarian strife in Latakia, home to some 450,000 of Christians, Sunni Muslims and Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Saturday's bloodshed was the latest in a spiral of violence that has gripped Syria since protests broke out on 15 March with demonstrators demanding major reforms in Syria.

The protests have put enormous pressure on President Bashar al-Assad and his Baath Party which has ruled Syria with an iron grip for close to five decades.

Officials have confirmed 28 deaths nationwide since the rallies started but activists say more than 126 people have been killed, with upwards of 100 killed on Wednesday alone in a bloody crackdown on protests in Daraa, the southern tribal town that has become the symbol of the protests.

Syrian newspapers dedicated their front-page headlines Sunday to the bloodshed in Latakia, and the government daily Tishrin said 150 people were wounded there in violence Friday and Saturday.

Al-Watan blamed "thugs" and said "their identities will soon be revealed."

Presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban however squarely put the blame on Palestinians from the Raml refugee camp, on the outskirts of Latakia.

"Some Palestinian refugees from the Raml camp wanted to provoke confessional strife by opening fire on security forces and protesters alike," she told reporters on Saturday.

"What is being targeted today is coexistence in Syria," Shaaban said.

But Ahmed Jibril, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, denied any Palestinian involvement in Saturday's violence, in a statement published in Al-Watan.

Deadly violence has gripped cities across Syria in 13 days of protests against the ruling Baath party and on Saturday demonstrators torched the party's local headquarters in the southern town of Tafas.

In nearby Daraa, at the Jordanian border, some 300 bare-chested young men climbed Saturday on the rubble of a statue of the late president Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar's father, shouting anti-regime slogans, witnesses said.

Daraa demonstrators on Friday tore down the statue and burned the home of the governor, who was dismissed after demonstrations against him earlier this month.

Daraa has emerged as the hub of the protests and has sustained the most casualties as residents repeatedly come out to demonstrate.

Authorities last week announced a string of reforms in a bid to appease increasingly angry protesters, who have put Assad under unprecedented domestic pressure since he came to power in 2000.

Assad's government has released scores of political detainees and said it would look into ending an emergency law in place since 1963.

The 45-year-old president is also rumoured to be making a public address in the days to come in which he is expected to announce more major reforms.

Protesters have vowed to keep taking to the streets until their demands for more freedom are met. Authorities have accused "armed gangs" of pushing peaceful rallies into violence.

Despite a call for massive protests on Saturday, on Facebook group The Syrian Revolution 2011, which has emerged as the motor of the protest movement, the only rallies in Damascus were in support of Assad.

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