by editor | 1st August 2011 7:13 am
A giant Syrian flag is held by the crowd during a protest against President Bashar al-Assad in the city center of Hama on July 29, 2011. Photo: Reuters
Syrian tanks firing shells and machineguns stormed the city of Hama on Sunday, killing 80 civilians, rights activists said, in one of the bloodiest days in a five-month-old popular revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
Estimates of Sunday’s death toll, which were impossible to verify, ranged from around 75 people to nearly 140 on a day when the attacks began before dawn and witnesses said they were too frightened to collect corpses from the streets.
The assault on Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre when Assad’s father crushed an Islamist uprising, began at dawn on the eve of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan after security forces laid siege to the city for almost a month.
Hama residents told Reuters by telephone that tanks and snipers fired into unarmed residential areas where people had set up makeshift roadblocks to try and stop their advance.
The Syrian state news agency said the military entered Hama to purge armed groups “shooting intensively to terrorize citizens”. A US embassy official in Damascus dismissed this official account as “nonsense”.
US President Barack Obama said he was appalled by the Syrian government’s use of violence against its people in Hama and promised to work with others to isolate Assad. “The reports out of Hama are horrifying and demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime,” Obama said in a statement.
“Syria will be a better place when a democratic transition goes forward. In the days ahead, the United States will continue to increase our pressure on the Syrian regime, and work with others around the world to isolate the Assad government and stand with the Syrian people.”
Britain and France condemned the Hama assault too. Italy urged a tough statement on Syria by the UN Security Council.
European Union governments planned to extend sanctions against Assad’s government on Monday by slapping asset freezes and travel bans on five more people. The EU has already imposed sanctions on Assad and at least two dozen officials and targeted military-linked companies in Syria.
The Syrian human rights organization Sawasiah said the civilian death toll in Hama had risen to 80. The independent group cited medical officials and witnesses in its report.
Syrian authorities have expelled most independent journalists since the unrest began in March, making it difficult to verify reports of violence and casualties.
Hama has particular resonance for the anti-Assad movement since the late President Hafez al-Assad sent in troops to smash an Islamist rebellion there in 1982, razing whole neighbourhoods and killing up to 30,000 people in the bloodiest episode of Syria’s modern history.
The current unrest has pitted primarily demonstrators from the Sunni Muslim majority against Assad’s minority Alawite sect, which dominates the security services and ultra-loyalist army divisions commanded by Assad’s feared brother Maher.
Some critics said Assad’s assault on Hama suggested an attempt to stamp out unrest before Ramadan, when people refrain from food and drink between dawn and dusk, begins on Monday.
“Assad is trying to resolve the matter before Ramadan when every daily fasting prayer threatens to become another Friday (of post-prayer protests). But he is pouring oil on a burning fire and now the Hama countryside is rising in revolt,” said Yasser Saadeldine, a Syrian Islamist living in exile in Qatar.
“It is desperate. The authorities think that somehow they can prolong their existence by engaging in full armed warfare on their own citizens,” US Press Attache J.J. Harder told Reuters by telephone from Damascus,
The US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, visited Hama earlier this month in a gesture of international support for what he described as peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations,
Citing hospital officials, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said earlier that the death toll in Hama was likely to rise, mentioning that dozens were badly wounded in the attack.
A doctor, who did not want to be further identified for fear of arrest, told Reuters that most bodies were taken to the city’s Badr, al-Horani and Hikmeh hospitals.
Scores of people were wounded and blood for transfusions was in short supply, he said by telephone from the city, which has a population of around 700,000.
“Tanks are attacking from four directions. They are firing their heavy machineguns randomly and overrunning makeshift road blocks erected by the inhabitants,” the doctor said, the sound of machinegun fire crackling in the background.
Residents said that irregular Alawite “shabbiha” militia accompanied the invading forces in buses.
The state news agency said military units were fighting gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns.
Another resident said that in Sunday’s assault, bodies were lying uncollected in the streets and so the death toll would rise. Army snipers had climbed onto the roofs of the state-owned electricity company and the main prison, he said.
Tank shells were falling at the rate of four a minute in and around north Hama, residents said. Electricity and water supplies to the main neighborhoods had been cut, a tactic used regularly by the military when sweeping into restive towns.
The Alawites have dominated Syria, a majority Sunni Muslim country, since the Baath Party took power in a 1963 coup.
Assad took power upon his father’s death in 2000, keeping the autocratic political system he inherited intact, while expanding the Assad family’s share of the economy through monopolies awarded to relatives and friends.
Opposition sources said on Sunday that secret police personnel had arrested Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, head of the main Baqqara tribe in the rebellious province of Deir al-Zor.
Bashir, who commands the allegiance of an estimated 1.2 million Baqqara, was abducted in the Ein Qirsh district of Damascus on Saturday afternoon, they added.
Hours before his arrest Bashir told Reuters he was striving to stop armed resistance to a military assault on the provincial capital of Deir al-Zor and convince inhabitants to stick to peaceful methods, despite killings by security forces.
Assad is trying to choke off an uprising that broke out in March, inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and has spread across many areas of Syria.
Turkey, until the uprising one of Assad’s main allies, said it and the rest of the Muslim world were “deeply disappointed” by the escalating violence in Syria since it ran against earlier promises of reforms from Assad.
“Such operations will … have an extremely negative impact on the necessary reform process. Such operations and violence bring deadlock rather than a solution. The Syrian administration finally needs to recognise this reality,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement reacting to the Hama bloodshed.
In southern Syria, rights campaigners said security forces killed three civilians when they stormed houses in the town of al-Hirak, 35 km (20 miles) northeast of the city of Deraa.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government troops also rounded up more than 100 people in the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiyah. A Western diplomat said he saw several tanks enter the suburb.
“The regime thinks it can scare people before Ramadan and make them stay home. But especially the people of Hama have shown themselves to be resilient,” the diplomat said.
The Syrian leadership blames “armed terrorist groups” for most killings during the revolt, saying that more than 500 soldiers and security personnel have been killed.
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