UN pulls staff out of Syria as concern grows over violence

THE United Nations is temporarily withdrawing some staff from Syria amid mounting international concern about the violent crackdown by government forces against civilian demonstrators.

Around 26 non-essential international staff and their families are being moved from the country as deadly confrontations continue between government forces and protesters in Syria, according to Michael Williams, the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon.

Speaking to reporters yesterday Mr. Williams said he was “very concerned” about the situation in the northern port city of Latakia, where Syrian military forces have engaged in a heavy and sustained assault since the weekend, killing dozens of people.

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The assault on Latakia is the latest in a series of clashes between Government forces and protesters since large numbers of Syrians took to the streets in mid-March to demand greater freedoms.

Those protests are part of a broader uprising across North Africa and the Middle East that has led to the toppling of long-standing regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and conflict in Libya.

As many as 2,000 people have been killed in the past five months leading world leaders and top UN officials, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to demand an end to the crackdown.

On Sunday, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) voiced grave concern about the situation in Latakia, where a camp housing around 10,000 Palestinian refugees came under attack by government forces using armoured vehicles.

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Sources also claimed the city came under fire from gunboats cruising off the coast, which was denied by the government.

The UN’s decision to move personnel to safety yesterday came as a Syrian rights group warned Syrian troops had detained dozens of people overnight after cutting electricity in a Damascus neighbourhood.

The group said the raids took place in the predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood of Rukneddine.

In Latakia, security centres were overflowing with detainees, forcing authorities to hold hundreds of other prisoners in the city’s main football stadium and a cinema, said Rami Abdul-Raham, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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The group also said a bullet killed a man in north-western Idlib province as he stood on his balcony. Troops were carrying out raids in the area at the time.

President Bashar Assad has dramatically escalated the crackdown on a five-month-old uprising since the start of the holy month of Ramadan at the beginning of August.

Military operations have been launched in the opposition stronghold of Hama, the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, the central city of Homs as well as the latest, Latakia.

Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands detained.

The regime insists its crackdown is aimed at rooting out terrorists causing unrest in the country but the increasing violence has led to international condemnation. Long-standing ally Turkey has urged an immediate end to the bloodshed and has threatened to take action if it does not.

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The United States has imposed an array of sanctions on the country, which were expanded last week, freezing assets in the US and blocking business and financial transactions.

Aimed at pressuring Mr Assad to halt the military crackdown on five months of protests, the directives include orders naming the president, his vice-president Farouk al-Shara as well as other key ministers, condemning violence against citizens and warning “regime insiders that they will be held accountable for the ongoing violence and repression in Syria.”