Obama ‘horrified’ as Syrian forces kill at least 80 in Hama

US: Massacre in iconic city "demonstrates true character" of Assad regime; EU spokesman calls reports of violence "appalling"; Syrian state news agency says military entered Hama to purge armed groups.

Hama 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hama 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian tanks firing shells and machine guns stormed the city of Hama on Sunday, killing at least 80 civilians in a move to crush demonstrations against President Bashar Assad’s rule.
Assad’s forces began their assault on the city of some 700,000 people – also the scene of a 1982 government massacre – at dawn after besieging it for nearly a month. The state news agency said the military entered Hama to purge armed groups “shooting intensively to terrorize citizens.”
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A US Embassy official dismissed the official account, saying Syrian authorities had begun a war against their own people by attacking Hama. Britain and France, which had led European overtures toward Assad, also condemned the assault.
US President Barack Obama said he was appalled by the Syrian government’s use of violence against its people in Hama, and promised to work with others to isolate Assad.
“The reports out of Hama are horrifying and demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House. “Syria will be a better place when a democratic transition goes forward. In the days ahead, the United States will continue to increase our pressure on the Syrian regime, and work with others around the world to isolate the Assad government and stand with the Syrian people.”
“It is desperate,” US press attaché J.J. Harder added by telephone from Damascus. “The authorities think that somehow they can prolong their existence by engaging in full-armed warfare on their own citizens,” he said, describing the official Syrian description of the violence as “nonsense.”
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.
The city has particular significance for the anti-government movement since Assad’s father, the late president Hafez Assad, sent in troops to smash an Islamist-led uprising there in 1982, razing entire neighborhoods and killing up to 30,000 people in the bloodiest episode of Syria’s modern history.
Some said Assad’s assault on Hama suggested an attempt to stamp out unrest before the start of Ramadan, the month when Muslims refrain from food and drink between dawn and dusk. This year, Ramadan begins on Monday.
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle EastClick for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle EastAlso on Sunday, opposition sources said secret police had arrested Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, head of the main Baqqara tribe in the rebellious province of Deir al-Zor. Bashir, who commands the allegiance of an estimated 1.2 million Baqqara, was abducted in the Ein Qirsh district of Damascus on Saturday afternoon, they said.
“What the regime is facing here is a tribal insurrection in the east stretching from the north in Deir al- Zor, through the middle in Albu Kamal,” Tony Badran, a research fellow with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies,” told The Jerusalem Post by email.
The two eastern cities form the heart of Syria’s oil industry. Badran said that if they join the uprising launched in the flashpoint city of Deraa in the south, “and adding Hama and Homs in the middle, then potentially the country could be geographically cut in half.”
Before his arrest, the tribal leader told Reuters he was striving to stop armed resistance to a military assault on Deir al-Zor and to convince inhabitants to stick to peaceful methods, despite killings by security forces.
Hama residents said tanks and snipers were firing on Sunday at unarmed residential districts where inhabitants had set up makeshift roadblocks to try to stop their advance.
They said that irregular “shabbiha” militia from the ruling Alawite sect accompanied the invading forces in buses.
Scores of people were wounded and blood for transfusions was in short supply, a local said by telephone from Hama.
In southern Syria, rights campaigners said security forces killed three civilians when they stormed houses in the town of al-Hirak, 35 km. northeast of Deraa. They said troops also arrested more than 100 people in the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiyah.
An activist group, Avaaz, said in a report last week that Syrian security forces had killed 1,634 people since the uprising erupted in March.
Meanwhile, European Union governments planned to extend sanctions against Assad’s government on Monday by slapping asset freezes and travel bans on five more people. The EU has already imposed sanctions on Assad and at least two dozen officials and targeted military-linked companies in Syria.
A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said reports of violence inflicted on peaceful protesters were “appalling,” and called on Assad to desist from attacks and pursue meaningful democratic change.
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.
“When Turkey and the US take a public stand on a particular locale, like Hama, and are ignored and a massacre occurs, if there is no credible response, it’s a problem,” Badran said.