More than 5,000 Palestinian refugees have fled a camp in the besieged Syrian city of Latakia after President Bashar Assad's forces shelled the city during a broad military assault to root out dissents, the UN said Monday.
UNRWA, the UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees, said the Palestinians fled after Latakia came under fire from gunboats cruising off the coast and ground troops attacking the city over the weekend. It was not immediately clear where the refugees were seeking shelter.
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"We are calling for access to the camp to find out what is going on," said UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness. "There were 10,000 refugees in the camp and we need to find out what is happening to them."
'Tanks in the streets'
Assad has dramatically escalated the crackdown on a 5-month-old uprising since the start of the holy month of Ramadan, when many Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Despite blistering international outrage, the regime is trying to establish firm control in rebellious areas by unleashing tanks, snipers and - in a new tactic - gunships.
On Monday, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called on Syria to immediately end the bloodshed and threatened unspecified "steps" if it fails to do so.
The military assault in Latakia was in its third day Monday after gunboats off the coast combined with ground troops Sunday for the first time in the uprising. Nearly 30 people, and possibly more, have been killed in the city since Saturday, activists say.
Soldiers also stormed the area of Houla in the central city of Homs, which has seen massive protests in recent months. A sniper killed an elderly man, according to the London-based Observatory for human rights, which has a network of activists on the ground in Syria.
The Observatory said troops opened fire Monday as a group of fleeing residents approached a checkpoint in the Ein Tamra district of Latakia. One person was shot dead and five wounded.
Rounding up young men
A Latakia resident confirmed the account, saying troops fired as scores of people, many of them women and children, were fleeing. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group that helps organize protests in Syria, also confirmed troops fired at fleeing families. It said random gunfire erupted Monday in addition to a campaign of raids and house-to-house arrests.
Troops later entered small neighborhoods in the al-Ramel Palestinian refugee camp, warning people to leave or risk their houses being destroyed, the LCC said. A witness said security forces were rounding up young men in the area and detaining them in a sports stadium nearby.
Amateur videos posted online by activists showed smoke rising from al-Ramel, the crackle of heavy gunfire and people shouting, "God is Great!"
A Syrian military official on Monday denied reports that gunboats had fired on Latakia, calling them "absolutely baseless." The official, whose comments were carried by state-run news agency SANA, said the ships were patrolling the coast "on a routine mission to prevent weapons smuggling into the country."
On Monday, Assad sacked the governor for the key northwestern province of Aleppo, Ali Mansour, and replaced him with Mowaffak Khallouf, SANA said.
No reason was given for the sacking. But while the opposition has yet to bring out the middle and upper middle classes in Damascus and Aleppo, the two economic powerhouses, protests have been building in Aleppo. Four people were killed there Friday as security forces attacked protesters.
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