REUTERS | August 5, 2011
Syrian tanks tightened their occupation of Hama and massed outside a defiant city in the east as President Bashar al-Assad ignored mounting world condemnation of attacks on protesters the United States says has killed 2,000 people opposing his rule.
In Hama, residents said tank shelling resumed and they feared higher casualty figures than the 135 estimated killed since the military assault began on Sunday on the city.
Hama is where Assad’s father, the late Hafez al-Assad, sent in tanks and killed thousands to crush a rebellion in 1982.
“They are hitting the al-Hader district and neighbourhoods around the Aleppo road. Electricity is still cut off,” one resident told Reuters in a brief call via satellite phone.
Syria has expelled most independent media since the five month popular revolt against 41 years of repressive Assad family rule began in March, making it difficult to verify witness accounts and official statements.
Another resident in Hama’s Sabounia district, a small business owner who did not want to be named, said on Thursday: “The sound of tank shelling and their heavy machineguns echoed in Hama all day. We fear many more martyrs (dead). Most people in my neighborhood have fled.”
He said militiamen loyal to Assad and known as ‘shabbiha’ were clearing out the streets near the university campus to stage a pro-Assad march “as if nothing is happening in Hama”.
Electricity and communications have been severed and as many as 130 people have been killed in the onslaught since Assad, from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, sent troops into the city on Sunday, according to residents and activists.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington believed Assad’s forces were responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 Syrians in their attacks on peaceful demonstrators during the uprising.
Clinton repeated that the United States believed Assad had lost legitimacy in Syria and said Washington and its allies were working on strategies to apply more pressure beyond new international sanctions announced earlier on Thursday.
“We are working around the clock to try to gather up as much international support for strong actions against the Syrian regime as possible. I come from the school that actions speak louder than words,” Clinton told reporters.
In eastern Syria, residents of Deir al-Zor and activists said hundreds of tanks and armoured personnel carriers had assembled in the last few days outside Euphrates River city, especially at a juncture of a highway leading to Damascus.
Tension rose in the eastern provincial capital this week after secret police in Damascus abducted Sheikh Nawaf al-Khatib, head of the main Baqqara tribe and an outspoken critic of assaults on pro-democracy demonstrators there.
Last week, tanks moved into Deir al-Zor and the town of Albu Kamal, on the border with Iraq. Both towns have seen major anti-Assad unrest.
Syrian forces also shot dead four protesters near Damascus and in southern Syria after nightly Ramadan prayers on Thursday when they fired at demonstrations demanding the overthrow of Assad, activists’ organisations said.
Abdullah Abazeid, a member of the Syrian Revolution Coordinating Committees, said three protesters were killed and at least 10 wounded in the town of Nawa near Deraa, cradle of the uprising against Assad family domination.
“Demonstrations have been breaking out daily after ‘tarawih’ (prayers following the nightly breaking of fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan) in Deraa and the surrounding towns,” Abazeid told Reuters.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activists’ organisation, said another protester was killed in the Damascus suburb of Qadam when four buses full of security police surrounded a demonstration there and fired at the crowd.
On Wednesday Assad’s forces killed at least seven demonstrators after tarawih prayers across the country, witnesses and rights campaigners said.
ASSAD RISKS “SAD FATE”
In a sign that the assault on Hama and other Syrian cities may be galvanising the international community against Assad, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whose country had resisted United Nations condemnation of Syria, said Assad risked a sad fate if he failed to reconcile with his opponents.
He spoke a day after Russia, which has a naval base in Syria, backed a U.N. Security Council statement condemning “the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities”.
The United States extended sanctions against Syria on Thursday to include Mohammad Hamsho, a prominent Syrian businessman and member of parliament.
Washington said he was a front for the interests of Assad and his brother Maher, who directly commands ultra-loyalist forces from the Alawite sect, to which the Assad family belongs, spearheading military assaults.
The move by the U.S. Treasury fell short of calls by Syrian dissidents and some U.S. senators to target Syria’s oil and gas sector to put some muscle behind the sanctions, which have had little impact on Assad’s tactics.
The European Union also agreed to further extend sanctions on Syria. Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said Syria was increasingly isolated.
“Given the regime’s cold-blooded violence against its own people, the front of countries holding their protective hand over the Syrian leadership is starting to crumble,” he said.
In Hama, residents said tanks had advanced into the main Orontes Square, the site of some of the biggest protests against Assad, who took power upon his father’s death in 2000. Snipers deployed onto rooftops and into a nearby citadel.
Syrian authorities say the army has gone into Hama to confront “armed terrorist groups” attacking civilians and sabotaging property. They say 20 soldiers have been killed.
(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi, Dominic Evans, Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Michael Shields in Vienna, David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Timothy Heritage in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich)