Syrian President Bashar Assad, in an image taken from state television,… (Syrian TV, AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Beirut — Syrian authorities preparing for a United Nations inspection are covering up damage in a Palestinian refugee camp that was pummeled with gunfire and rockets during a crackdown on protesters in recent days, according to a Western diplomat, Syrian activists and camp residents.
The Syrian army and security forces launched a naval and ground attack on the coastal city of Latakia on Aug. 13. During the operation they shelled the Ramel refugee camp, which houses more than 10,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants as well as impoverished Syrians. The U.N. has dispatched a mission to Syria to investigate alleged violations of international human rights law.
The mission comes as Syrian President Bashar Assad, in his first extensive public comments in weeks, on Sunday promised elections early next year but announced no new significant changes in the face of months-long protests. His regime, which is closely allied with Iran, has faced mounting international pressure, including possible fresh action by the U.N. Security Council and Western powers.
"If we're afraid of the Security Council or others, then we just have to abandon our rights," he said in an interview on Syrian television. "If there's going to be a boycott or a siege [by the West] then we'll turn to the East."
The U.N. mission arrived in Damascus, the capital, late Saturday and is expected to visit Latakia on Monday, according to U.N. spokesman Christopher Gunness. The team also will tour protest hot spots such as Dara, Homs, Hama and Jisr Shughur, which have been subject to crackdowns by security forces.
On Sunday, the U.N. officials were en route to the town of Duma on their first outing when their convoy was surrounded by Syrians reaching out to give their names and tell their stories.
However, few independent observers believe that Syrian authorities will allow the inspectors unfettered access during their visit, which is to last up to five days and involves officials from six U.N. agencies, including the World Food Program, UNICEF and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
"In Latakia they are literally sweeping glass and stones up and scrubbing blood off the streets," a Western diplomat with knowledge of the camp told The Times, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing colleagues in Syria. "We have information that a big cleanup operation is going on in Latakia as the U.N. mission begins its first working day."
Thousands of residents of the crowded camp in southern Latakia were forced to flee their homes and authorities held some inside a soccer stadium and sports facility north of the city. At least 37 people have been killed in the Ramel camp since protests started in Syria in mid-March, according to antigovernment activists.
"Residents in Ramel said that security forces organized a cleanup operation in the camp in preparation for tomorrow's visit of the U.N. delegation to hide crimes that were committed in Latakia," said Mohamed Fizo, a member of the Local Coordinating Committees, an activist network.
"Security forces started cleaning the main street of the camp, Jaffa Street, before the arrival of the U.N. team," said one witness reached by Skype. "Some residents, including children, were forced to put flowers on the tanks and were filmed by the Syrian state-run TV and the private TV station Al Dunya saying that they asked the army to intervene in the camp."
Another resident of the camp said the bodies of the dead were taken by security forces to an unknown location. Military and security officials established checkpoints at entrances to the camp, inspecting identification papers and arresting people whose names were on a list of presumed antigovernment activists.
Al Arabiya television reported Sunday that two young men from the camp were shot dead on the Syria-Turkey border while trying to flee the country.
"We are receiving more and more reports of snipers targeting people who want to flee Syria into Turkey," said a Beirut-based Syrian activist who asked that his name not be published for security reasons. "It's an attempt to block any testimonies from inside Syria from surfacing."
Protests and violence continued in other parts of Syria over the weekend.
Security forces launched a wave of arrests in Homs, the central city that has been a bastion of the antigovernment movement. "The city is witnessing a complete cutting of land [telephone] lines and mobile phones, and there are power outages in many districts and intensive gunfire is heard in different areas," said 33-year-old Assad, an employee at a private university who left Homs on Saturday. He asked that his full name not be given for safety reasons.
According to Syrian activists quoted by the pan-Arab Al Jazeera news channel, at least 25 people have been killed by security forces in Syria since Saturday.
Marrouch is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi contributed to this report.