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Heavy fighting erupts in Syria's Latakia province

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government forces backed by helicopters clashed on Tuesday with rebels in several towns in the coastal province of Latakia, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Rebels said at least eight of the fighters were killed.

“The clashes started seven hours ago. These are the heaviest clashes so far in the area since the beginning of the revolution (in March 2011),” Rami Abdelrahman, the head of the British-based Observatory, told Reuters.

He said at least five tanks and armoured personnel carriers were destroyed. Rebels have taken over police stations in the city of Haffeh in the countryside of Latakia, he added. He said “a lot of ambulances” were seen arriving in the city of Latakia carrying government forces casualties.

“Haffeh is totally surrounded right now,” said an activist in the city. He said the clashes were in the villages of Bekas, Babna, Jankeel.

Latakia has been relatively calm in the uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, who is from minority Alawite sect. Anti-government demonstrations have been in the Sunni neighbourhoods of Latakia, a majority Sunni area with a large Alawite population.

Bassel Salow, a spokesman of a brigade of the rebel group the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the area, said at least eight fighters were killed during the clashes which were continuing in Haffeh.

“They have shelled at least 60 villages using helicopters, we have 15 civilians wounded and we can not rescue any of the them,” he said by telephone.

Syria imposes restrictions on foreign journalists making it difficult to verify events.

Reporting by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Alison Williams