Syrian forces invade Hama, at least 10 killed

Attack comes after defectors ambush convoy, killing 8; UN: More than 5,000 killed since start of Assad crackdown.

By REUTERS
December 14, 2011 19:22
Syrian demonstrators protest against Assad in Homs

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Assad 311 R. (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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AMMAN - Syrian troops backed by tanks killed at least 10 people when they stormed the city of Hama on Wednesday. In the first armored incursion into Hama since a tank offensive in August ended large protests in the city center, troops entered districts north and east of the Orontes River, firing machine guns and ransacking and burning closed shops, they said.

The incursion came just after thirteen people were killed the Hama province Wednesday when troops fired on a car and provoked a reprisal ambush. The British-based Syrian Organization for Human Rights said that army deserters ambushed a convoy of four military jeeps, killing eight soldiers, in response to the army attack on a car which killed five people.

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Heavy civilian casualties were reported in the Hamidiya neighborhood. Insurgents tried to stop the advancing forces at Hadid bridge and two armored vehicles were reported destroyed, activists in contact with residents said.

"Hamidiya has been a thorn in the side of the regime. It is an old area near farmland with lots of alleyways, which had helped protests continue there," Omar, a activist from Hama who lives in Damascus, said by phone.

Hama, 240 km north of Damascus, has particular resonance for Syrians. The city, in a valley on the Damascus-Aleppo highway, was the site of the biggest massacre in Syria's modern history.

Troops overran Hama in 1982 to put down the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which made its last stand in the city. Up to 30,000 people were killed, of whom many died in the army bombardment or were executed in the streets by death squads loyal to President Bashar al-Assad's' father, the late Hafez Assad.

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Tanks attacked Hama at the beginning of August, provoking Arab and Western outrage, after weeks of protests that drew hundreds of thousands of people to the main Orontes Square, demanding the removal of Bashar and an end to 41 years of Assad family rule.

Tanks withdrew after 10 days. The authorities said the operation was necessary to cleanse the city of "terrorists" according to the wishes of Hama inhabitants. Activists said up to 300 people, mostly civilians, may have been killed.

UN estimates more than 5,000 killed so far

The United Nations' most recent estimate indicates that more than 5,000 people have died in Assad's crackdown on protests. Assad, 46, whose minority Alawite family has held power in majority Sunni Muslim Syria for four decades, faces the most serious challenge to his rule from the turmoil.

The demonstrations started with peaceful calls for reform but burgeoned into demands for Assad's overthrow. A growing armed insurgency has since fueled fears of civil war.

The Syrian government says more than 1,100 members of the army, police and security services have been killed. State media give daily reports of military funerals as well as frequent clashes with armed groups and discoveries of explosives.

The United States and France, which blame Assad's forces for the violence, have urged the United Nations Security Council to respond to the mounting death toll.

But Syria still has international allies. Russia and China have blocked Western efforts to secure Security Council condemnation of Damascus and on Wednesday its closest regional ally Iran sent signals of support this week.

State news agency SANA reported that the visiting Iranian minister for urban development and roads, Ali Nikzad, said his country would stand by Syria "and support its economy and its stances facing the great conspiracy targeting it."

SANA said Nikzad's visit to Damascus followed the endorsement by Iran's parliament on Tuesday of a free trade agreement between the two countries.

Iranian support crucial for Assad's survival

Iranian economic support could be crucial for Syria, facing sanctions from the United States, European Union, neighboring Turkey and the Arab League. Syria's economy has already been hit by a collapse in tourism and oil revenues, falling trade, a weakening currency and a halt in foreign investments.

Despite the worsening economic crisis and a growing number of army defections, mainly among Sunni conscripts, Assad still has the loyalty of most of the army. Unlike in Libya, the rebels have secured neither high-level defections from the military or government, nor do they fully control any territory.

The city of Homs, about 150 km north of Damascus, is the main center of opposition to Assad. United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said on Monday there were "extremely alarming" reports of a troop buildup around Homs which might signal an imminent assault on the city.

Briefing the UN Security Council, she said the 5,000 people killed in Syria include civilians, army defectors and those executed for refusing to shoot civilians, but not soldiers or security personnel killed by opposition forces.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Tuesday: "We think it's high time for the UN to act. We thought it was when (Russia) vetoed, and we think it is all the more necessary now."

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The violence spilled over into Lebanon on Wednesday when residents said Syrian soldiers crossed the frontier into the Bekaa Valley and fired at local shepherds, wounding two of them.

A media rights group said on Tuesday Syrian authorities had charged US-born Syrian blogger Razan Ghazzawi, who was arrested as she tried to leave for Jordan last week, with seeking to incite sectarian strife.

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