BEIRUT -- Opposition activists Wednesday reported a second day of fierce fighting in the Syrian coastal province of Latakia, a region deemed to be under tight government control.
The battles were described by activists as the heaviest to date in the province, home to many Alawites, members of an offshoot of Shiite Islam whose adherents include President Bashar Assad and top personnel in his security command structure.
Government forces were seeking to oust rebel forces who seized portions of Haffah , a strategic crossroads township that is home to about 30,000 people, including surrounding suburbs and villages, the opposition said.
Haffah “has been under intense bombardment by helicopters and heavy artillery since the early morning,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition group, said Wednesday. “Syrian forces have gained ground through the bombardment and reinforcements, and they are now on the outskirts of the city.”
Fighting was also reported in the nearby town of Selma. Opposition activists reported at least 13 people were killed in Latakia province Wednesday, a day after 22 soldiers were reported slain in fighting in the area. There was no independent confirmation from the government. Heavy gunfire can be heard in this amateur video:
The opposition reported a deteriorating humanitarian situation and urged United Nations monitors in Syria to head to the zone.
“Residents report that they can hear a constant stream of names of the citizens martyred coming from the mosque's speakers,” the Syrian Observatory group reported.
The inland region of Haffah has been a stronghold of antigovernment protests, even as the nearby Mediterranean port city of Latakia, the provincial capital, has remained relatively calm and under stringent security, said an activist from Latakia city. The area is a transport corridor for roads leading from the coast to the Syrian interior and north to Aleppo.
The government “managed to control Latakia, the city, and not to allow any protests here, but protests in [Haffah] did not stop for months,” said the activist, reached via Skype.
Some activists circulated a video showing rebels taking over a government tank and declaring that Haffah had become a "liberated area.” A voice-over in the video says, “Two tanks were destroyed and one tank was taken by FSA,” referring to the Free Syrian Army, a rebel umbrella group.
-- Rima Marrouch