AMMAN - Syrian tanks pounded residential neighborhoods across the city of Hama on Monday in the heaviest barrage of a two-day assault to crush street demonstrations against President Bashar Assad, witnesses said.

Earlier on Monday, residents said at least four civilians were killed by tank fire on the second day of attacks on the city, where memories are still vivid of the brutal suppression of an uprising in 1982.

Intense shelling began again after Ramadan evening prayers, concentrating on districts near the al-Bilal roundabout in the northwest of the city, the Jarajmeh district in the east and northern neighborhoods near the Omar bin al-Khattab mosque.

"The shells are falling once every ten seconds," one witness told Reuters by phone. The thump of artillery and explosions could be heard in the background.

The Security Council was set to meet Monday afternoon at the United Nations headquarters in New York to discuss that reports that Syrian government forces had launched a massive crackdown against protesters over the weekend.

The council, which was slated to gather at 5:00 PM local time, was urgently convened by Germany on Sunday to address the growing violence in the restive Middle-Eastern country.

Ahead of the meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on the international communityon Monday to rebuke Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his government "in the strongest possible terms”.

At least 85 civilians have been reported killed in the crackdown on Hama, where Assad's father crushed an armed Muslim Brotherhood revolt 29 years ago by razing neighbourhoods and killing many thousands of people.

"No one can leave the town because the troops and shabbiha (pro-Assad militia) are shooting at random with machineguns," a Hama resident, who gave his name as Raed, told Reuters by telephone during the earlier attack.

Security forces, dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect, had besieged Hama, a mainly Sunni Muslim city of 700,000, for nearly a month before the assault.

Analysts said that by choosing to crush the dissent there with overwhelming military force, Assad had chosen a path of no return against those clamoring for his overthrow.

His government is signaling to its critics abroad that it will not bow to calls for change that have swept across the Arab world, and to its people that it is prepared to wade through blood to stay in power.

"What has been clear is that the government is prepared to use force without limit," Beirut-based Middle East analyst Rami Khouri told Reuters. "But this is not solving the problem. instead, it is making the rebellion more robust."

Residents said among those killed on Monday was Khaled Adel al-Sheikh Mossa, whose house was hit in early morning shelling. A roof of another house collapsed and a pharmacy was destroyed. A doctor said a youth died after being shot in the chest.

Army tanks also stormed the eastern town of Albu Kamal after a two-week siege, activists in the region said, as the military steps up assaults aimed at subduing dissent in the tribal Deir al-Zor province bordering Iraq's Sunni heartland.

They said one man, Ibrahim al-Mashadani, was killed as tanks occupied the center. Residents said tanks surrounded Albu Kamal on July 17 after thousands of people, emboldened by army defections in the town, staged anti-Assad protests.

The latest violence cast a pall over the start of Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast in daylight hours.

Residents said at least 29 civilians had been killed in a weekend tank assault on Deir al-Zor, the provincial capital.

Syrian authorities have expelled most foreign journalists since the anti-Assad protests began in March, making it hard to verify activists' reports or official statements.

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