VIDEO - Syrian gunboats firing heavy machine guns pounded impoverished districts of Latakia on Sunday, killing at least 21 people in a renewed assault on the Mediterranean coastal city, activists said.
As the gunships blasted waterfront districts, ground troops backed by tanks and security agents stormed several neighborhoods. The sharp crackle of machine-gun fire and loud explosions could be heard across the city.
The intense operations in Latakia, a key port city once known as a summer tourist draw, are part of a brutal government crackdown on several Syrian cities meant to root out protesters demanding the ouster of President Bashar Assad.
Tanks rolling into Latakia
Latakia has a potentially explosive sectarian mix. Sunnis, which are a majority in Syria, live in the city's urban core, while Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, populates villages on the city's outskirts, along with small minorities of Christians, ethnic Turks and other groups.
The attacks on predominantly Sunni areas of Latakia, a city with a population of more than 600,000, raised concerns of sectarian bloodshed in a country that has already seen an alarming rise in sectarian tensions since the start of the uprisings.
On Saturday, at least 20 tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled into the city's al-Ramel district amid intense gunfire that sent many residents fleeing the area. Activists said at least two people were killed.
Army fired at homes, wounding many
The al-Ramel neighborhood has seen large anti-Assad protests since the uprising against the regime began in mid-March. On Friday, as many as 10,000 people took to the streets there on Friday, calling for Assad's ouster.
After their initial assault on the city Saturday, Syrian security forces stormed several districts in Latakia again on Sunday.
At least 21 people have died in the shooting. The death toll was confirmed by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the activist network the Local Coordination Committees. The activists say most of the deaths occurred in the al-Ramel and Skantouri neighborhoods of Latakia.
Both groups said gunboats in the Mediterranean are taking part in the offensive, firing heavy machine guns at al-Ramel. A large number of people were wounded as a result of the indiscriminate firing on houses, they said.
The protests calling for the downfall of the Assad regime 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.
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.