- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 16, 2011

BEIRUT (AP) — Heavy machine-gun fire erupted across the besieged Syrian city of Latakia on Tuesday as the death toll rose to 35 from a military assault now in its fourth day, residents and activists said.

President Bashar Assad has dramatically escalated the crackdown on a 5-month-old uprising since the start of the holy month of Ramadan. Despite broad condemnation, the regime is trying to retake control in rebellious areas by unleashing tanks, ground troops and snipers.

Mr. Assad has launched military operations in the opposition stronghold of Hama, the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, the central city of Homs and now the port city of Latakia.

Most of the shooting early Tuesday was in Latakia’s impoverished al-Ramel, al-Shaab and Ein Tamra areas. Al-Ramel is home to a crowded Palestinian refugee camp where many low-income Syrians also live.

The U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees has said more than 5,000 refugees have fled the camp after Mr. Assad’s forces shelled the city in an operation that began Saturday.

Syria has denied firing from gunboats, despite widespread witness accounts. The regime insists its crackdown is aimed at rooting out terrorists fomenting unrest in the country.

State-run news agency SANA said Tuesday that troops were pursuing “armed terrorists” from al-Ramel, arresting a number of gunmen and dismantling explosives and mines they had planted.

Navanethem Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, plans to brief the U.N. Security Council on Thursday on the rights situation in Syria, the council president said.

After months of deadlock, the Security Council, in a statement approved by all 15 council nations, finally responded to the escalating violence in Syria on Aug. 3, condemning Mr. Assad’s forces for attacking civilians and committing human rights violations.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of people on the ground, said at least 17 people were killed Monday, six of them in Latakia. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said a 22-year-old Palestinian mother of two died Tuesday.

The deaths bring the total of those who have died in Latakia since Saturday to more than 35.

The other deaths took place in Homs and Houla in central Syria, when security forces opened fire on protesters. A man who had been shot earlier in Deir el-Zour died of his wounds Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called Monday on Syria to immediately end the bloodshed and threatened unspecified “steps” if it fails to do so.

“If the operations do not end, there would be nothing more to discuss about steps that would be taken,” Mr. Davutoglu said without elaborating.

Turkey, a former close ally of Syria, has been increasingly frustrated with Damascus’ crackdown. Mr. Davutoglu traveled to Syria last week and urged Mr. Assad to end the bloodshed. But Turkey, Syria’s neighbor and an important trade partner, has not joined the U.S. and Europe in imposing sanctions.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Mr. Assad must “cease the systematic violence, mass arrests and the outright murder of his own people,” adding that the Syrian president “has lost legitimacy to lead.” Mr. Carney said the U.S. would be looking to apply further sanctions against Mr. Assad’s government.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the European Union to freeze the arrests of Syrian national oil and gas companies and the Central Bank of Syria “until the Syrian government ends gross human rights abuses against its citizens.”

Syria’s authorities are still killing their own people despite multiple efforts by other countries, including former allies, to make them stop,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s time to show the government that Europeans won’t help to fund its repression.”

Oil and gas are among Syria’s main exports.

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