Beirut, Lebanon – In yet another escalation of its crackdown on dissent, the Syrian government unleashed navy vessels, tanks and a mix of soldiers, security forces and paramilitary fighters against the port city of Latakia on Sunday, killing at least 25 people, including three children, activists and residents said.
The attacks in Latakia marked the third weekend in a row that the government has defied international condemnations in its campaign to stanch a remarkably resilient uprising, which began in March. The attacks have stoked fresh outrage, in part because they have come during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, traditionally a time of piety and festivity when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.
For much of the summer, President Bashar al-Assad’s government seemed to lose momentum in the face of protests that brought out hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Syria’s fourth and fifth-largest cities, Hama and Deir al-Zour. But this month, the government retook firm control first of Hama, then Deir al-Zour last weekend. Late on Saturday, it turned its attention to Latakia, which, like Syria as a whole, has a Sunni Muslim majority and an Alawite minority, the Muslim sect that is disproportionately represented in the country’s leadership.
The attacks grew in ferocity on Sunday, and activists and residents said for the first time that gunfire was coming from navy vessels anchored off the coast. As in Hama, activists said security forces fired anti-aircraft weapons at civilian buildings. In addition, the activists said, land-line telephones and Internet connections were cut off to some neighborhoods of Latakia, a city of 650,000 that serves as Syria’s main port.
Residents said women and children fled for the countryside or for Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city and a locale that has, so far, remained relatively quiet.
“Bombing, shelling and shooting all night long,” said a 29-year-old resident of one besieged neighborhood who gave her name as Muhra. “Shooting all over the city and shelling over our heads. We hid inside our house and closed all the doors.”
The government, through its official news agency, denied that the navy had taken part in the assault. It said security forces were fighting men armed with “machine guns, grenades and explosive devices” in the hardest-hit neighborhood, al-Ramel al-Janoubi. The agency said two members of the security forces were killed and 41 wounded.
The Syrian military and security forces pressed on with raids Monday, but the violence was less pronounced than over the weekend.
Ahmed Bogdash, an activist in Latakia, speaking by telephone, said that snipers were perched on rooftops and that gunfire was rattling across some neighborhoods, whose streets were largely empty. “There’s still gunfire, but it’s quieter than before,” he said.
He said protests were organized in some locales where the military had yet to enter, in solidarity with the neighborhoods besieged since Saturday.
The violence has prompted a flurry of contacts in the last week, especially after the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, visited Damascus on Tuesday. President Obama spoke in recent days with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain. Each declared the necessity for Syria to stop killing protesters, who so far have remained largely peaceful, but none of the leaders has yet demanded that Mr. Assad step down.
Diplomats say Turkish officials, with at least tacit approval from Western allies, envisioned a two-week period in which Mr. Assad’s government would begin bringing meaningful change, though the precise nature of it remained unclear. If the government fails to do so, diplomats seem unsure of exactly what steps they might take in response.
The military and security forces attacked Latakia in April, but as elsewhere in the country, protests there underlined a persistent phenomenon: as soon as forces withdraw, people return to the streets. Latakia witnessed some of the bigger protests in the country on Friday, and residents suggested that the defiance prompted the attack on some of the city’s neighborhoods populated by Palestinian refugees and poor Syrian Sunnis.
The assault bore the hallmarks of past crackdowns: the deployment of dozens of tanks and armored vehicles on the outskirts to intimidate residents, the cutting of some basic services, then arrest sweeps with random firing through the most restive places.
“The regime smashed the city in April, and now it’s re-entering to arrest protesters in the poor regions,” said a 28-year-old activist there who gave his name as Ammar. “The regime declared then that it was finishing off ‘armed gangs.’ What will it say now?”
Since the uprising began, Mr. Assad has offered tentative reforms, but the crackdown, one of the bloodiest in the Arab revolts this year, has so far overshadowed them. They have failed to resonate among a people that seems to have only grown more determined since March. Often heard among the demonstrators is that no reform will suffice; only the departure of Mr. Assad will end their uprising.
“For the last five months, we were demonstrating sometimes with big numbers and sometimes with small numbers, but we haven’t stopped,” said a 30-year-old activist in Douma, a town near Damascus, who gave his name as Mohammed al-Duman.
Precise numbers are difficult to come by, but some activists and rights groups put the death toll in the uprising at more than 2,000. Many times that number have been arrested, with sweeps carried out this month in both Hama and Deir al-Zour.
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria.