The Syrian regime deployed gunboats against its own people yesterday in a multi-pronged operation using tanks and troops in the Mediterranean port of Latakia, activists claimed.
While gunboats raked the city's densely populated beachfront with machine gun fire, army units stormed through a number of impoverished areas which have developed into protester strongholds. In the ramshackle district of Al-Ramel, where some of the city's poorest residents live alongside a Palestinian refugee camp, at least 23 people died during the assault, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The group said a large number of people were injured because neighbourhoods had been targeted indiscriminately from the sea. A video uploaded to YouTube, apparently from Latakia, showed a gunboat patrolling the waters just off the coast.
The camera pans around to show tanks and troops guarding the waterfront, while loud booms and the crackle of machine-gun fire can be heard in the distance. Activists also reported the sound of explosions across the city yesterday.
"One boat would come and fire at the city, then leave," said a resident of Al-Ramel, who spoke to The Independent by phone yesterday. "Then another would come along and fire. There are also snipers on the roofs. You cannot leave your home or they will fire at you."
Latakia, with its inner city Sunni Muslims surrounded on the outskirts by Shia Alawites – President Bashar al-Assad's own sect – along with Christians and Turks, mirrors the national ethnic and religious patchwork which some fear could lead Syria to civil war.
The state news agency denied the navy had used gunboats during the operation, but if the allegation is true it would mark a major escalation of firepower being used to crush the 19-week nationwide uprising.
Andrew Landis, a Washington-based Syria analyst, said: "It shows how desperate the Assad regime has become." He thought the tactic was "unprecedented" in Syria's modern history.Reuse content