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Syrian tanks deploy in coastal city amid shooting

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[August 13, 2011]  BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian tanks fanned out across a neighborhood in the coastal city of Latakia on Saturday amid intense shooting that sent many resident fleeing to safer areas, a human rights group said.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said 20 tanks and armored personnel carriers deployed around the al-Ramel neighborhood in Latakia as the shooting erupted in the morning.

The circumstances of the shooting in al-Ramel, which has a large population of Palestinians, were not immediately known.

Also on Saturday, scores of security agents and pro-government gunmen, known as Shabiha, entered the town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon and several nearby villages, arresting scores of residents, Abdel-Rahman said.

Both the al-Ramel section of Latakia and Qusair have seen large protests against President Bashar Assad's regime since demonstrations broke out throughout the country in mid-March. The government's crackdown intensified over the past weeks, with troops storming several towns and cities.

A Latakia resident confirmed the military's presence in al-Ramel, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Abdul-Rahman said many residents, mostly women and children, were fleeing the neighborhood to safer areas.

The shooting in Latakia came a day after tens of thousands of Syrian protesters shouted for Assad's death in a dramatic escalation of their rage and frustration. The crowds took to the streets after Friday prayers, defying bullets and rooftop snipers after more than a week of intensified military assaults on rebellious cities.

Security forces killed at least 14 protesters on Friday, according to human rights groups.

The chants calling for Assad's death were a stark sign of how much the protest movement has changed since its initial demands for minor reforms and no calls for regime change.

The protests have grown dramatically over the past five months, driven in part by anger over the government's bloody crackdown in which rights groups say at least 1,700 civilians have been killed.

The government has justified its crackdown by saying it's dealing with terrorist gangs and criminals who are fomenting unrest.

Also Friday, the United States stepped up calls for a global trade embargo on oil and gas from Syria warning even some of America's closest allies that they must "get on the right side of history" and cut links with a government that uses violence to repress protesters and will not reform.

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said international opinion was hardening against Assad, noting a "crescendo of condemnation" from world powers and Syria's Arab neighbors. But she said tougher action was required, too.

Dutch Foreign Ministry said Friday the European Union may decide in the next week or two to broaden its sanctions against the Syrian regime and state-run businesses.

Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal has been lobbying his colleagues to expand the EU travel ban on Syrian officials -- which now covers 35 people, including Assad -- and to target Syria's telecommunications, banking and energy sectors. Syria gets about 28 percent of its revenue from the oil trade.

The Syrian uprising was inspired by the revolts and calls for reform sweeping the Arab world, and activists and rights groups say most of those killed have been unarmed civilians. An aggressive new military offensive that began with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at the start of August has killed several hundred people in just one week.

[Associated Press; By BASSEM MROUE]

Bassem Mroue can be reached at

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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