'Tank assault on Syria's Hama kills at least 80'

At least 121 killed around Syria as Assad gov't moves in to quell protests; "Tanks attacking from four directions," doctor says.

By REUTERS
July 31, 2011 12:24
4 minute read.
Syrian army tanks [illustrative]

Syrian army tanks 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Omar Ibrahim)

At least 80 civilians were killed in a tank assault on the city of Hama on Sunday to crush pro-democracy protests, with at least 121 reported dead across the country and scores wounded.

Earlier Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based human rights NGO, reported the death toll at 45, according to hospital figures, but acknowledged that the number could rise due to the number of those sustaining life-threatening wounds.

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Scores of people were wounded and blood for transfusions was in short supply, a doctor who did not want to be identified said by telephone from the city, which has a population of around 700,000.

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"Tanks are attacking from four directions. They are firing their heavy machine guns randomly and overrunning makeshift road blocks erected by the inhabitants," the doctor said, the sound of machine gun fire crackling in the background.

Hama was the scene of a massacre in 1982 when Assad's father, the late president Hafez al-Assad, sent his troops to crush an Islamist-led uprising, razing whole neighborhoods and killing up to 30,000 people in the bloodiest episode of Syria's modern history.

Another resident said that bodies were lying uncollected in the streets and so the death toll would rise. Army snipers had climbed onto the roofs of the state-owned electricity company and the main prison, he said.

Tank shells were falling at the rate of four a minute in and around northern Hama, residents said, and electricity and water supplies to the main neighborhoods had been cut -- a tactic used regularly by the military when storming towns to crush protests.

Assad is trying to end an uprising against his 11-year rule that broke out in March, inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and has spread across the country.

Syrian authorities have expelled most independent journalists, making it difficult to verify reports of violence.

In southern Syria, rights campaigners said security forces killed three civilians when they stormed houses in the town of al-Hirak, 35 km (20 miles) northeast of the city of Deraa.

Local activists and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that dozens of people, including three women, had been arrested.

The Observatory said troops also arrested more than 100 people in the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiyah. A Western diplomat said he saw several tanks enter the suburb.

"The regime thinks it can scare people before Ramadan and make them stay home. But especially the people of Hama have shown themselves to be resilient," he said, referring to the Muslim Holy month, which begins in Syria on Monday.

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The US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, visited Hama earlier this month in a gesture of international support for what he described as peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, once one of Assad's main allies, said in May "we do not want to see another Hama massacre", and warned the 45-year-old president that it would be hard to contain the consequences if it were repeated.

The Syrian leadership blames "armed terrorist groups" for most killings during the revolt, saying that more than 500 soldiers and security personnel have been killed.

An activist group, Avaaz, said in a report last week that Syrian security forces had killed 1,634 people in the course of their crackdown, while at least 2,918 had disappeared. A further 26,000 had been arrested, many of whom were beaten and tortured, and 12,617 remained in detention, it said.

'Government forces launch assault in the East'

In the east of the country, Syrian forces began an assault two days ago in a tribal oil-producing province on the border with Iraq's Sunni heartland.

An activists' group said at least five civilians were killed in the eastern provincial capital of Deir al-Zor on Saturday, the second day of a tank-and helicopter-backed attack on the city.

The group, the Syrian Revolution Coordination Union, said 57 soldiers in Deir al-Zor, including two lieutenants and a captain, had defected to the demonstrators. It said residents had formed local committees and erected makeshift barriers to try to halt the advance of tanks and armored vehicles inside the city.

"More tank columns are heading to Deir al-Zor. By using heavy weapons, security forces are waging war against their own people," the group said in a statement.

The official state news agency said: "Armed groups in Deir al-Zor cut off roads, terrorized citizens and attacked police."

It added: "An exchange of fire occurred. The police forces confronted these armed groups and are still chasing them... The inhabitants of Deir al-Zor have expressed their rejection of these actions which are bad for the homeland."

Jpost.com staff contributed to this report.


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