(Updates with latest casualty toll in first two paragraphs, activist’s comment in third, analyst’s comment in eighth. For more on the regional turmoil, see EXTRA and MET.)
Aug. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Syria’s navy maintained a blockade of Latakia following an assault on the port city during anti- government protests that has left at least 42 civilians dead over the past day, activists said.
Soldiers, backed by tanks and warships, also injured hundreds of people, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said today in a telephone interview from Damascus. Gunfire was heard just before dawn as residents tried to get food before the Ramadan fasting hours began. Power cuts were reported across the city, Merhi said. Protesters also returned to the streets in the cities of Dera’a and Homs.
“The people in Latakia got a real shock yesterday,” said Merhi. “Now the city is surrounded by the army and navy and most of the people have no electricity and the telephone network was blocked for a while so it was difficult to reach people.”
More than 2,400 people have been killed since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government began in March, according to Merhi and Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. The U.S. State Department estimates that the government has detained more than 30,000 people. Protests began after demonstrations toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, and destabilized Libya.
Telephone calls seeking comment today on the report of deaths from the Interior Ministry and Assad’s media adviser weren’t answered.
“We are in a state of a real war -- shelling and shooting everywhere in the city,” Abu Rayan, a witness from the al-Raml district in southern Latakia, told Al Arabiya television. “The situation is bad and there is a lack of water and electricity.”
International pressure on the government is increasing, with U.S. President Barack Obama, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and British Prime Minister David Cameron calling on Syria to stop attacking its people. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Aug. 12 urged nations doing business with Syria to cut off trade and arms sales. Canada is extending sanctions on Assad’s regime.
“If Syrian forces are using naval ships to attack the port city it raises concerns of securing that port and how it interrupts trade flow to and from Syria,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Everybody is hoping that Russia will mediate, but Russia stands to lose a lot if it loses the Syrian and Libyan markets -- an estimated $10 billion a year.”
Assad, who came to power in 2000, has blamed the protests on foreign-inspired plots. More than 500 members of Syrian security forces have died since the start of the unrest, according to the government.
Many of Assad’s top officials are from the Alawite branch of Islam, an offshoot of Shiism, while most of Syria’s population is Sunni Muslim.
The U.S. is concerned about the prospect of sectarian violence in Syria and the chance it will spark more instability, a U.S. official said last week. The Obama administration may call on Assad soon to step down, said the official, who asked not to be identified because the administration was still discussing the issue.
Israel’s army said it’s planting new land mines along its border with Syria in a move to thwart protesters from spilling into the Golan Heights, Ba’mahaneh, an Israeli military magazine, reported yesterday. Israel’s military is also preparing for the possibility of a confrontation with the Syrian army should Syria’s soldiers decide to get involved with Palestinian attempts to storm the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan Heights in September, the Israeli daily Haaretz said Aug. 11.
--With assistance from Tony Capaccio and Zaid Sabah in Washington. Editors: Heather Langan, Andrew Atkinson
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