Syria unrest: 'Arrests in Hama as tanks move on Idlib'

YouTube image said to be of mass protest in Hama on 1 July Friday's protest in Hama was one of the largest in three months of demonstrations

Syrian troops are raiding houses and arresting people in the central city of Hama, reports say, after massive anti-government protests there on Friday.

Residents had set tyres on fire and blocked roads to delay the movement of troops, who were arriving in busloads and "firing randomly", residents said.

Meanwhile, tanks that were surrounding Hama have moved towards villages in the north, sparking fears of clashes there.

And in Damascus, two protesters were reportedly shot dead on Sunday.

The killings took place in the Hajjar al-Aswad suburb of the capital amid ongoing arrest campaigns there too, human rights activists said.

The latest deaths and detentions come at a time when the government is pushing for a national dialogue next week, says the BBC's Lina Sinjab in Damascus. The opposition has refused to take part in any dialogue while the violence continues.

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

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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On Monday, a resident of Hama told the Reuters news agency that he had seen dozens of Syrian soldiers surround a house in the Mashaa neighbourhood and make arrests.

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. The operation was led by the president's brother, Rifaat.

In a strange parallel, current President Bashar al-Assad has turned to his own brother, Maher, who commands the army's elite Fourth Division, to deal with the unrest.

Hama - population 800,000 - has seen some of the biggest protests and worst violence in Syria's 2011 uprising. In June, security forces shot dead 60 protesters. And in early July, 150,000 anti-government protesters marched in a central square - in one of the biggest demonstrations since the start of the uprising in mid-March.

"At least 30 buses carrying soldiers and security police entered Hama this morning. They are firing randomly in residential neighbourhoods," the resident, a workshop owner who gave his name as Ahmad, told Reuters by telephone.

Other residents reported hearing gunfire in the western areas of the city.

Security forces had detained more than 20 people in early morning raids, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement obtained by the AP news agency.

Reports cannot be independently verified as the Syrian authorities have banned most foreign media from the country.

On Friday, the city saw some of the biggest demonstrations yet against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. A day later, Mr Assad sacked the local governor, Ahmad Khaled Abdel Aziz for reportedly failing to suppress the protests.

Hama was the scene of a Muslim Brotherhood uprising against Mr Assad's father, Hafez, in 1982, which the army crushed, killing at least 10,000 people.

Sanctions

Also on Monday, tanks and armoured vehicles that had been surrounding Hama moved north towards the province of Idlib, activists said, sparking concerns that the situation there could get worse.

Many of the deaths during the recent uprising are said to have happened in the north-western province, where there has been a heavy army crackdown on protests.

At least 10,000 people fled to Turkey, following attacks in the town of Jisr al-Shughour. Some 9,300 still remain camped there in tents, Turkish officials say.

Map

Activists say that the army is now intensifying its operations in the nearby towns of Kfar Nubbul and Kfar Roumah, where at least six people were wounded when tanks opened fire on Monday morning.

The uprising shows no sign of letting up despite a deadly government crackdown that has brought international condemnation and sanctions.

President Assad is facing the most serious challenge to his family's four-decade ruling dynasty in Syria.

His administration has blamed a "small faction" of "saboteurs" of exploiting popular grievances.

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