Syrian city sealed off after militia cracks down on protests
The Syrian army sealed off the coastal city of Latakia yesterday after snipers from a feared pro-government militia responded to widening unrest against President Bashar al-Assad's regime with renewed bloodshed.
Up to 21 people were reportedly killed as violence, which had been limited primarily to southern Syria, erupted in Latakia, the tribal heartland of the Assad family that has ruled the country since 1971.
The latest violence will intensify scrutiny on Mr Assad, who has long sought to present himself as a reformer.
Giving at least circumstantial credence to rumours of a government rift in how to respond to the crisis, a militia said to be controlled by members of the Assad family was deployed on the streets on Latakia with orders to kill. The president was said to have spoken against using force.
The Shabiha, which gained notoriety for the brutal way it enforced a protection racket in Latakia in the 1990s, was disbanded by the president after he came to power 11 years ago.
But yesterday, the gang's gunmen, seemingly stronger than ever, carried out their bloodiest mission yet to punish those who had dared to march in a place that has become known as the regime's riviera playground.
Residents of the city said gangsters from the Shabiha, which is drawn from the president's Alawite sect of Shia Islam, roared through the streets firing at protesters from their vehicles and later took up sniper positions on rooftops.
Video footage showed protesters running down streets, some of them carrying the wounded. For the first time in what has so far been a peaceful uprising, there were reports that the protesters were armed and that they had returned fire.
Some residents also claimed the demonstrators were not from Latakia and may have been members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed Islamist group.
The violence prompted the regime to play up fears of a sectarian divide. (© Daily Telegraph, London)