March 28, 2011 / 2:07 PM / 9 years ago

Notables calm sectarian tensions in Syrian city

* Main university district calm- Dalila

* Cautions against “playing sectarian card”

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN, March 28 (Reuters) - Sunni and Alawite religious leaders and civic figures in the Syrian port city of Latakia have met to try to contain sectarian violence, leading opposition figure Aref Dalila said on Monday.

Alawite President Bashar al-Assad, facing the gravest challenge to his 11-year rule, deployed the army on Saturday in Latakia, Syria’s main port, for the first time after nearly two weeks of protests spread across the country.

“The situation appears calm today after religious and civil society figures intervened. I was told buses are running and businesses have re-opened in the main University district of Latakia,” Dalila told Reuters by telephone from Damascus.

Syria’s establishment is dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, a fact that causes resentment among Sunni Muslims who make up some three-quarters of the population.

“It is easy to play on the sectarian card in these circumstances. I hope the regime will choose an exit from this crisis that will spare Syria more bloodshed,” said Dalila, a former dean of economics at Damascus University and a former political prisoner who had challenged what he termed monopolies granted by Assad to his relatives.

Dalila, who hails from Latakia but lives in Damascus, was referring to official statements issued after violence erupted in Latakia saying Syria was the target of a project to sow sectarian strife.

Latakia is a potentially volatile mix of Sunni Muslims, Christians and Alawites. The city has huge fortress-like secret police headquarters in residential areas.

Dalila has been campaigning for decades for a democratic alternative to the Baath party. He was jailed from 2001 to 2008 after he criticised corruption.

An official statement issued on Sunday said attacks by “armed elements on the families and districts of Latakia” this week resulted in 12 people being killed, among them attackers, civilians and security forces.

State television had shown at the weekend deserted streets in Latakia littered with rubble and broken glass and burnt-out vehicles. Damascus cited attempts by ‘armed groups’, possibly backed by foreign powers, to stir sectarian conflict across the country.

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