A young boy carries the flag of Syrian rebels during an anti-regime demonstration… (Alessio Romenzi, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Beirut — Even as Syrian activists on Friday commemorated an atrocity from their past, the regime of Bashar Assad was turning tanks and guns on residents of the central city of Homs, reportedly killing more than 200 people and wounding scores, anti-government groups said early Saturday.
Demonstrators had taken to the streets across Syria on Friday to pay homage to an earlier generation of revolutionaries: Islamic activists crushed 30 years ago in the city of Hama by the government of the late President Hafez Assad.
But early Saturday, opposition activists began reporting that government forces had launched a large-scale assault on Homs.
The attack came as the U.N. Security Council prepares to vote on a draft resolution backing an Arab call for Bashar Assad to give up power.
Syrian authorities denied that any massacre took place in Homs, alleging a campaign of “distortion, falsification and instigation” and saying that footage of corpses said to be bombardment victims was in fact showing the remains of “innocent citizens” killed by “armed terrorist groups.”
During the day Friday, the collective slogan that demonstrators had hoisted on banners and repeated in chants was "Hama, forgive us." It was a reference to the city where, human rights activists say, Syrian forces in February 1982 slaughtered more than 10,000 people and flattened much of the old city. It was the brutal denouement of a crackdown targeting the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.
The Islamist group had waged a bloody campaign of assassinations and guerrilla war against the secular regime of the elder Assad. The Hama massacre in effect routed the Islamist resistance.
The subject of the notorious massacre has been taboo in Syria for years, but the episode has become a periodic rallying cry during the 10-month-plus rebellion against President Bashar Assad, who succeeded his father.
In Hama, anti-government activists said, protesters spread red paint — symbolizing the blood of those killed 30 years ago — in the streets and poured it into the Orontes River.
"I myself feel proud today," said one Hama resident reached by telephone, who added that the stigma of 1982 had long haunted the city's people. "Before, I was scared to say I was from Hama, scared to be accused of being a terrorist," said the activist, who for security reasons gave his name only as Joseph.
But the evocation of Hama can cut different ways in the complex context of today's rebellion in Syria. The Assad regime has portrayed the current revolt as a Muslim Brotherhood-hatched uprising of religious militants, that is, a kind of reprise of the '82 unrest crushed by Hafez Assad.
An Islamist takeover is a chilling prospect for Christians and other minorities in Syria, where Sunni Muslims are in the majority. Much of Bashar Assad's support comes from minority communities, including his own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
While hailing the "martyrs" of 1982, today's anti-government activists insist that the current rebellion is an all-inclusive movement that seeks a democratic government in Damascus. Organizers deny a sectarian agenda and accuse the Assad regime of stoking sectarian tensions.
Still, the uprising seems rooted largely in a Sunni Muslim community that has chafed for years under the control of Assad's Alawite sect, which dominates much of the military and security services.
In Homs, the embattled rebel stronghold south of Hama, opposition advocates said several thousand people joined protests Friday. "We should remember them," one activist said by phone, speaking of those killed in Hama in 1982.
Videos online suggested that many protesters heeded activists' request that they wear black to commemorate those killed 30 years ago.
But later, Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite news service, reported that "dozens" died in an offensive that began late Friday against the Homs neighborhood of Khaldiyeh in which tanks, mortars and heavy machine guns were employed. Two main opposition groups, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, claimed as many as 217 were killed and hundreds injured. There was no independent confirmation of the death toll.
Elsewhere in Syria on Friday, the opposition groups said at least 28 people were killed as clashes continued between security forces and armed rebels, including defectors from Assad's military.
The official government news agency reported that two children were killed and a third injured when a "terrorist" bomb exploded in northern Idlib province, another hotbed of resistance to Assad's rule.
The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have died in Syria since the rebellion began in March. The government says more than 2,000 security personnel have been killed