TERROR has gripped the port city of Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast as snipers on rooftops and gangs of young men armed with knives and clubs take root in the scenic resort.
Fifteen people have been confirmed killed and scores wounded in unrest that has convulsed Latakia in recent days, as a wave of dissent sweeps through a country renowned for its iron grip on security.
Streets throughout the city, 350km northwest of Damascus, were deserted on Sunday and all shops closed, while the commercial district of Sheikh Daher bore the scars of vandalism and arson.
“My daughter and her husband were walking down the street near the Khaled ibn Walid mosque here in our town when she was wounded in the knee by a sniper. Her left leg has been amputated,” said a woman at her daughter’s bedside in the city’s state-run hospital.
Monzer Baghdad, who heads the hospital, said the injury was the result of a “high calibre bullet.”
Authorities have raised the alarm over snipers in the city, and residents expressed similar fears.
“Despite the arrival of security forces, snipers are still hiding out on rooftops of a pharmacy and a building near a college, but the military has been able to stop them,” said one witness.
A 32-year-old shop owner told AFP armed gangs of thieves had also begun to surface in the city which has a confessionally mixed population of around 450,000.
“Twenty robbers arrived on Saturday at midday with sticks and knives. They burned two police vans as well as billboards and destroyed telephone booths with their batons,” he said.
The man, who like his townsfolk requested his name be withheld for his own safety, said the gang had tried to storm the headquarters of Syriatel, a mobile phone company owned by a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad, but were unable to break the locks.
The entrance to the building, which also contains medical clinics, had clearly been tampered with.
“It took a good 10 minutes before the police and military intervened and even then they did not seem to want to use force,” the shop-owner said.
Unidentified gunmen staged a drive-by shooting at the state-run hospital in the early hours of Sunday, residents said.
“Soon after, young people armed with sticks and knives tried to break into an ambulance, but I managed to call the police in time and they were able to stop them,” Dr. Baghdad said.
Army reinforcements were sent into Latakia overnight to restore order in the city and were still deployed in force on Sunday.
President adviser Buthaina Shaaban accused fundamentalists and some Palestinian refugees from a nearby camp of wanting to fuel sectarian strife in Latakia, home to Christians, Sunni Muslims and Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
But in the city’s alleyways late on Sunday afternoon, young people erected barricades with tyres, concrete blocks and slabs of wood, and did not allow reporters into their neighbourhoods.
Meanwhile, thousands of Syrian citizens continue to live in fear.
“I was pushing my cart home when a thug pulled out his knife, beat me and broke my arm,” a vegetable seller said.
One resident, furious and shaking, recalled his experience this weekend in the city which for years had been a peaceful example of coexistence.
“Criminals blocked my car and forced me to stop. When my father did not get out fast enough, they beat him and then they opened fire on it.”