Syrian unrest: Hama army raid kills dozens

Amateur footage of what is believed to be the city of Hama as Syrian forces attack

Syrian security forces have cracked down on anti-government protests across the country, killing 100 people in the city of Hama alone, reports say.

Witnesses said tanks moved into Hama at dawn, shelling civilians. Other towns also erupted in violence in one of the bloodiest days since protests began.

The government said troops had been sent in to Hama to remove barricades erected by the protesters.

US President Barack Obama said reports from Hama were horrifying.

"Once again, President [Bashar al-Assad] has shown that he is completely incapable and unwilling to respond to the legitimate grievances of the Syrian people," he said.

Mr Obama, who said he was appalled by the government's use of "violence and brutality against its own people", added that the US would continue to work to isolate Mr Assad's regime.

Analysis

In over four months of protests, no-one can predict with any confidence what the outcome will be.

The uprising won't go away but has yet to engulf the two biggest cities of Damascus and Aleppo.

The protesters face a government that is talking about comprehensive reforms, but hitting back with ferocity.

The Americans have not explicitly called for President Assad to go. The international community is not united on this in the way it was on Libya. So there is not going to be any outside intervention.

It is up to the Syrians themselves, and at this stage, nobody can say how it will go.

By early evening, activists in Hama told the BBC that the city was quiet, and that the tanks had pulled out to the city's perimeters after failing to gain control of the centre.

With this latest military operation, the authorities are sending a clear message that they will not tolerate large-scale unrest ahead of the month of Ramadan, when protests are expected to grow, says the BBC's Lina Sinjab in Damascus.

But our correspondent says the people of Hama remain defiant, with some still out in streets shouting: "We will not be killed again," a reference to a massacre in 1982 when tens of thousands were killed.

Elsewhere in Syria, activists said about 30 people had been killed on Sunday amid widespread clashes:

  • Witnesses said security forces in the Damascus suburb of Harasta threw nail bombs into a crowd of protesters, injuring about 50 people
  • In the Damascus suburb of Muadhamiya, more than 100 people were arrested, rights groups said
  • Residents in the southern town of Hirak said four civilians have been killed and dozens more injured or detained
  • At least seven civilians were killed in the eastern provincial capital of Deir al-Zour, where tanks are patrolling the streets, according to activists
  • A powerful tribal leader, Nawaf al-Bashir, was detained by secret police in Damascus
  • The government said five soldiers, including a colonel, have been killed across the country

The recent protests - calling for widespread democratic reforms and political freedoms - show no sign of letting up despite a government crackdown that has brought international condemnation and sanctions.

Activists say more than 1,500 civilians and 350 security personnel have been killed across Syria since protests began in mid-March.

More than 12,600 people have been arrested and 3,000 others are reported missing.

Centre of protests

Hama has been in a state of revolt and virtually besieged for the past month. According to activists on the ground, troops and tanks began their assault at dawn, smashing through hundreds of barricades erected by locals to reach the centre of Hama.

"[Tanks] are firing their heavy machine-guns randomly and overrunning makeshift road blocks," a doctor in Hama told Reuters by phone, with machine-gun fire in the background.

Significance of Hama

Hama - a bastion of dissidence - occupies a significant place in the history of modern Syria. In 1982, then-President Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar, sent in troops to quell an uprising by the Sunni opposition Muslim Brotherhood. Tens of thousands were killed and the town flattened.

Hama, with a population 800,000, has seen some of the biggest protests and worst violence in Syria's 2011 uprising. It was slow to join in, but has now become one of the main focuses of the revolt, and is largely out of government control.

Rights groups, residents and hospital officials in Hama told the BBC that 88 people had been killed in Sunday's operation.

Some residents said bodies were lying in the streets, and electricity and water supplies had been cut.

A Hama resident told the BBC World Service that the three main hospitals had run out of blood supplies after being overwhelmed by numbers of wounded people.

"They are treating people in the halls of the hospitals. A lot of injured people [have been] taken to homes and doctors are treating them there," he said.

The Syrian government defended its actions, saying in a statement on the state news agency Sana that armed groups had "set police stations on fire, vandalised public and private properties, set roadblocks and barricades and burned tyres at the entrance of the city".

"Army units are removing the barricades and roadblocks set by the armed groups at the entrance of the city."

Most foreign media is banned from the country, making it difficult to verify reports.

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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