Syrian Tanks Enter Latakia; Pressure on Assad Grows

Syrian troops kill three; U.S. President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah repeat calls for the crackdown to stop.

Syrian troops killed three people as tanks swept into the coastal city of Latakia Saturday, activists said. The crackdown on protest by President Bashar Assad drew criticism from the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which was adding its voice to growing Arab pressure on Assad.

Assad's military campaign against protesters has left 1,700 civilians dead in five months, say activists.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah repeated their calls for the crackdown to stop. Obama also spoke to British Prime Minister David Cameron and the two called for an immediate end to attacks by Syrian government forces, the White House said, adding that Obama and Cameron would "consult on further steps in the days ahead."

The bloodshed Saturday came a day after security forces shot dead 20 people during nationwide marches in which demonstrators called for Assad's overthrow and vowed they would "kneel only to God."

As for Saturday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two people were killed and 15 wounded in heavy gunfire after around 20 military vehicles entered the Ramle district of Latakia.

Soldiers backed by loyalist militia known as shabbiha were also deployed in the city's Sulaiba district, the group's head, Rami Abdel Rahman, said. "They are arresting dozens of people," he said, adding many people were fleeing the assault.

Troops and shabbiha killed one person in the town of Qusair, near the Lebanese border, and made arrests in nearby Jousiyah village, he said. The bodies of four people arrested during an assault last week in the Houla Plain, north of Homs, were returned to their families, he added.

Syrian authorities deny reports of deaths in detention and say 500 soldiers and police have been killed by armed groups they blame for the violence. The state news agency SANA said three security forces were killed in Friday's protests.

Since the start of Ramadan in early August, Assad has stepped up the military campaign, launching assaults on the central city of Hama and the city of Deir al-Zor in the eastern Sunni Muslim tribal heartland. Assad's family, which has ruled Syria for 41 years, is from the minority Alawite sect.

After a wave of Arab criticism of Damascus last week, on Saturday the Saudi Arabia-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation accused Syria of using "excessive armed force" and called on Damascus to stop the bloodshed. Its chief, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, urged Assad "to exercise utmost restraint through the immediate halt to the use of force to suppress popular demonstrations."

Obama and King Abdullah spoke by telephone Saturday and "agreed that the Syrian regime's brutal campaign" must end "immediately," the White House said. The Saudi monarch, who has had fraught relations with Assad, recalled his ambassador from Damascus on Monday.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday Syria would be better off without Assad and called on nations that buy oil or sell arms to Syria to cut those ties.

France urged any French people in Syria to leave using commercial transport.