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Syrian tanks move into center of Hama

Syrian authorities cut off Internet and other services as tanks took positions in Hama. People trying to flee the city, a symbol of the rebellion, are cut off by government forces.

August 04, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi and Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times
  • Smoke is seen near a tank at Bahra roundabout in Hama in this still image taken from video. Syrian tanks occupied the main square in central Hama on Wednesday after heavy shelling of the city, residents said.
Smoke is seen near a tank at Bahra roundabout in Hama in this still image taken… (Reuters )

Reporting from Beirut and Washington — The U.N. Security Council condemned the violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Syria on Wednesday as authorities intensified the assault on a city that symbolizes resistance to President Bashar Assad's autocratic rule.

The Security Council, which has been deadlocked over Syria for three months, expressed "grave concern at the deteriorating situation," and called on authorities "to fully respect human rights and to comply with their obligations under applicable international law. Those responsible for the violence should be held accountable."

Rising international outrage had no immediate effect in Syria, where security forces moved tanks into the heart of the rebellious city of Hama, cutting off telephone, Internet and at least some electricity and water lines to the city. Witnesses and activists reached by satellite telephone described scenes of chaos as tanks took positions in the city center. The assault began Sunday.

In 1982, Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, killed as many as 30,000 people and flattened huge sections of the city to quash a similar uprising. The younger Assad's willingness to employ the same methods suggests that he, his powerful brother and close members of his ruling Alawite minority, a small Shiite sect, view the uprising as a threat that must be crushed regardless of the human or political costs.

Activists said tank and rocket fire was concentrated in districts of Hama where protesters regularly gather for rallies.

Many were attempting to flee the city, but were cut off by tanks and soldiers, who also prevent food from entering. Video posted online showed panicked groups of protesters fleeing amid barrages of heavy gunfire.

"The tanks rolled into Hama at 5 a.m.," said Salah, a 30-year-old Web developer reached by telephone. "They got to yhr city center and residential neighborhoods. We noticed we had lost Internet and phone connections. We heard heavy artillery all around us, bearing down on the streets."

Security forces bore down especially hard on those attempting to gather for public prayers at mosques for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that began Monday. The opposition has said Ramadan may be a make-or-break period for the 4-1/2-month-old uprising, which was inspired by revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

"As we perform our nightly prayers during Ramadan, the regime is working to scatter us, prevent us from going to mosques," said Rabih, an opposition activist in Hama reached by satellite phone. He declined to give his last name. "Before, people were kept from larger avenues. Now they are kept from every single street. Families have been trying to move out to bordering neighborhoods to stay alive."

Few Western officials or independent observers accept the Syrian government's argument that it is fighting an armed insurrection by Islamic extremists.

Although U.S. and other Western diplomats say the demonstrators have been peaceful, they have endorsed a statement urging "all sides to act with utmost restraint, and to refrain from reprisals, including attacks against state institutions."

A senior U.S. official said that at this point it was "unrealistic to expect the Security Council, given its current composition," to take stronger action, such as sanctions. But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing the sensitivity of discussions, said that the council might be willing to consider tougher action if the crackdown continues.

European and U.S. officials have punished Syria with a series of sanctions, targeting the country's fragile economy. But Russia and China, both veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, have strongly resisted condemnation of the Syrian regime, as have temporary members Brazil, India, South Africa and Lebanon. The Lebanese government publicly disassociated itself from Wednesday's Security Council statement.

U.S. officials have tried to build international support for moves that would increase diplomatic and economic pressure. But the officials say privately that the tools available are limited, and that the principal impetus for change needs to come from within Syria.

Hama activists urged the international community to do more, some even suggesting armed intervention.

"We want to send the international community this message: that if we turn to extremism it will be on them," said Rabih, the activist. "I am an educated man. Even as an intellectual, I am afraid of being taken by my emotions if someone threatens my wife, my daughter. We are resilient.

"Ramadan has empowered us," he said. "But we feel afraid, and we feel the fire of injustice burn in our hearts."

Daragahi reported from Beirut and Richter from Washington. Special correspondent Roula Hajjar in Beirut contributed to this report.

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