Syrian tanks stormed the flashpoint city of Hama early Sunday in one of several clashes nationwide that left at least 67 dead and more than 100 injured, human rights groups said.
Assad’s forces began their assault on the city, scene of a 1982 massacre, at dawn after besieging it for nearly a month. The official state news agency said scores of were on rooftops and “shooting intensively to terrorize citizens.”
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said security forces were responding to “armed groups” in Hama who blocked streets with barricades and terrorized citizens by firing from the rooftops of buildings, while human rights groups described the arrival of tanks as a raid on the city.
“The law-enforcement forces are still pursuing these armed groups and deal with the situation there in suitable ways,” the government news agency said.
A doctor, who did not want to be further identified for fear of arrest, told Reuters that the city’s Badr, al-Horani and Hikmeh hospitals had received 19, three and two dead bodies respectively.
There were scores of wounded people and a shortage of blood for transfusions, 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.
In Hama, throngs of residents to take to the streets in an attempt to block the tanks, a local activist said. More than 100 were injured in the city, according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria.
Tanks rolling near the border met fierce resistance from residents, said Omar al Habbal, a member of the committees, an affiliation of groups that reports on protests in the nation.
Hama has particular significance for the anti-Assad movement as Assad’s father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, sent in troops to crush an Islamist-led uprising there in 1982, razing whole neighborhoods and killing up to 30,000 people in the bloodiest episode of Syria’s modern history.
“Hama will be very harsh to them,” said al Habbal, who lives in the city. “The whole city has decided to resist with stones, not weapons. The army will either join the demonstrators or leave our city.”
Tank shells were falling at the rate of four a minute in and around northern Hama, residents said, and electricity and water supplies to the main neighbourhoods had been cut – a tactic used regularly by the military when storming towns to crush protests.
The raid marks the latest violence as anti-government protesters in the nation have called for a new regime since mid-March. Activists blame the deaths of civilians in demonstrations on security forces, but the government has consistently attributed the violence to “armed groups.”
President Bashar al-Assad and the ruling family are from the minority Alawite sect, which has dominated Syria, a majority Sunni country, since the ruling Baath Party took power in a 1963 coup.
In 2000, Assad succeeded his late father, keeping the autocratic political system he inherited intact, while expanding the share of the Assad family of the economy through monopolies awarded to relatives and friends
President has drawn criticism at home and abroad for his tough crackdown on the protesters calling for his ouster.
The U.S. 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.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, once one of Assad’s main allies, said in May “we do not want to see another Hama massacre,” and warned the 45-year-old president that it would be hard to contain the consequences if it were repeated.
On Sunday British Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned reports of attacks in Hama.
“The attack appears to be part of a coordinated effort across a number of towns in Syria to deter the Syrian people from protesting in advance of Ramadan. The attacks are all the more shocking on the eve of the Muslim holy month,” he said in a statement. “President Bashar is mistaken if he believes that oppression and military force will end the crisis in his country. He should stop this assault on his own people now.”
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. [via CNN, Reuters and The Telegraph]