BEIRUT — Gunmen in inflatable dinghies attacked a military unit on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, state media said yesterday, the first seaborne assault in a 13-month-old revolt against President Bashar al Assad. The nocturnal raid, along with the killings of at least 15 people in violence in two areas near the capital, underlined the threadbare state of a UN-brokered ceasefire deal that has Western leaders talking of tougher steps to stop the bloodshed.
The official Sana news agency said several gunmen and soldiers died in the battle that followed the coastal attack near the northern port of Latakia, 35 km south of the Turkish border. “The fighting ... resulted in the death and wounding of a number of military personnel while the number of those killed from the terrorist group was not known because they attacked the military unit at night,” Sana said.
Damascus has accused Turkey of allowing weapons and funds to flow to insurgents throughout the uprising, the latest in a wave of revolts across the Arab world. Turkey also plays host to the leadership of the dissident Free Syrian Army. Lebanese authorities found weapons including rocket-propelled grenades and rifles on board a ship intercepted in the Mediterranean which may have been trying to supply Syrian insurgents, security sources said.
In a village north of Damascus where army defectors had taken refuge, activists said Syrian forces killed at least 10 people. And overnight, five members of the security forces were killed in an explosion targeting two vehicles near Damascus, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The April 12 ceasefire arranged by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has only modestly reduced the level of daily carnage, with both sides accusing each other of multiple breaches of the truce.
On Friday, a suicide bomber killed nine people including security officers at a Damascus mosque.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. The blast was close to the site of a January 6 suicide bombing later claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself the Al Nusra Front.
The latest suicide attack was just one of five explosions to hit the capital on Friday, creating the impression that insurgents may be changing tactics and embarking on a sustained bombing campaign aimed at the seat of Assad’s power.
“The action is picking up and it seems the (dissidents) and Assad’s forces are starting to battle it out in Damascus as well,” said one activist based in the capital who uses the name Mar Ram.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon accused Damascus last week of breaking its pledge to withdraw heavy weapons and troops from towns, saying he was “gravely alarmed by reports of continued violence and killing in Syria”.
Syrian media hit back, say Ban and the international community were inflaming the conflict by ignoring “crimes and terrorist actions” committed by anti-Assad militiamen.
“His focus on shamefully pointing at Syria, as usual, encourages these groups to continue to commit more crimes and terrorist acts,” the pro-Assad Tishreen newspaper said in an editorial.
Russia, one of Damascus’ biggest remaining allies, repeated that line, saying the dissidents who were largely to blame for ceasefire violations were trying to provoke foreign intervention.
“This truce has not yet fully set in largely because opposition armed groups try to create provocations — explosions, terrorist acts, shooting at government forces, government buildings, administrative buildings,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
UN monitors are trickling in and officials say 30 of a planned 300-strong mission should be in place by tomorrow to reinforce observers already stationed in anti-Assad hotbeds such as Idlib, Hama, Homs and Deraa.
The slow build-up, more than two weeks after the truce came into effect, has been derided by Assad’s foes and intensified frustration in Western capitals, where leaders want firmer measures imposed on Damascus sooner rather than later.
France says that if Assad’s forces do not return to barracks, it will push next month for a “Chapter 7” UN Security Council resolution — which could allow action ranging from economic sanctions to military intervention.
Russia and China have made clear that they would veto Libya-style military action and have resisted the idea of sanctions. — Reuters