Middle East

Syria unrest: Barack Obama condemns 'brutal' Hama raid

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Media captionThe BBC's Lina Sinjab in Damascus said the protests are expected to get bigger during Ramadan

US President Barack Obama has condemned the Syrian authorities' crackdown on protesters on Sunday, which activists say has left more than 130 dead.

Mr Obama said he was appalled by the government's use of brutality against its own people and promised to work to isolate President Bashar al-Assad.

Security forces killed dozens in the city of Hama on Sunday.

The government said troops were sent to Hama to remove barricades erected by the protesters.

But an official at the US embassy in Damascus dismissed those claims as "nonsense", saying the government had launched "full-on warfare" against its own people.

In an interview with the BBC on Monday, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague called for stronger international pressure on Syria.

"We do want to see additional sanctions. We want to see stronger international pressure all round. Of course, to be effective, that can't just be pressure from Western nations, that includes from Arab nations, it includes from Turkey," Mr Hague said.

Seeking military action against Syria, even with UN authority, was "not a remote possibility", he added.

Also on Monday, President Assad praised the military for "foiling the enemies" of the state, the official news agency reported.

"[The army's] efforts and sacrifices will be admired," he said.

'Legitimate grievances'

Mr Obama said the reports from Hama were horrifying and demonstrated the true character of the Syrian regime.

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

Mr Obama said he was appalled by the government's use of "violence and brutality against its own people".

Ministers from France and Germany also condemned the day's violence.

Germany, currently a UN Security Council member, has requested emergency discussions in New York on Monday.

Dawn attack

The military had pulled out of Hama a month ago, remaining on the outskirts and putting the city under a virtual siege.

Tanks and troops re-entered Hama at dawn on Sunday, attacking civilians with shells and machine-gun fire, according to witnesses.

Hospitals soon complained of being overwhelmed by the numbers of dead and wounded, and local residents said they had received appeals for blood donations.

Activists and residents said more than 100 people had been killed by the time the tanks rolled out again at dusk.

Elsewhere in Syria, reports said about 30 people had been killed on Sunday amid widespread unrest.

Security forces cracked down on protests in two suburbs of Damascus, and there were reports of mass arrests and fatal shootings in the southern town of Hirak and the eastern provincial capital of Deir al-Zour.

The government said five soldiers, including a colonel, were killed in clashes with protesters across the country.

'Foreign interference'

The protests began in mid-March, inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Although Mr Assad has offered concessions and reforms, the government has also carried out periodic crackdowns and activists say more than 1,500 civilians and 350 security personnel have been killed since March.

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

Many of the protesters have turned more radical in the face of government repression, demanding that the president step down.

The Syrian government has repeatedly accused foreign-backed extremists and armed criminal gangs of stirring up trouble.

In a statement on the state news agency Sana on Sunday, the government said armed groups had "set police stations on fire, vandalised public and private properties, set roadblocks and barricades and burned tyres at the entrance of Hama".

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

Most foreign journalists are 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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