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45 Syrian Civilians Killed in Hama by Security in Attacks on Protesters

August 3, 2011

Syrian tanks thrust into Hama, 45 killed-activist

By Khaled Oweis

Thu Aug 4, 2011, 3:51am EDT

AMMAN, Aug 4 Reuters) -

At least 45 civilians were killed in a tank assault by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces to occupy the center of Hama, an activist said on Thursday, in a sharp escalation of a military campaign aimed at ending an uprising against his rule.

Reacting to intensifying assaults on Syrian cities and towns, the U.N. Security Council overcame deep divisions and condemned Assad's bloody crackdown on civilian protesters. It was the first substantive action by the United Nations on Syria's five-month-old uprising for political freedoms.

An activist who managed to leave the besieged city told Reuters that 40 people were killed by heavy machinegun fire and shelling by tanks in al-Hader district north of the Orontes river on Wednesday and early on Thursday.

The activist, who gave his name as Thaer, said five more people from the Fakhri and Assa'ad families, including two children, were killed as they were trying to leave Hama by car on the al-Dhahirya highway.

Syrian authorities have expelled most independent media, making it difficult to verify witness accounts and official statements.

Residents earlier said tanks had advanced into central Hama on Wednesday after heavily shelling the city and occupied the main Orontes Square, the site of some of the largest protests against Assad, who succeeded his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.

Snipers spread onto rooftops and into the nearby citadel. They said shelling concentrated on al-Hader district, large parts of which were razed in 1982 when forces loyal to Hafez al-Assad overran Hama to crush Islamist insurgents, killing many thousands of people.

Human rights campaigners say more than 90 people, not counting the latest toll, have been killed in Hama since Assad, from Syria's minority Alawite sect, launched a military assault on Sunday to crush dissent against his autocratic rule.

The assaults triggered international condemnation and calls from U.S. senators for sanctions on Syria's energy sector, concentrated in eastern Syria.

Last week tanks moved into the eastern provincial capital of Deir al-Zor and the town of Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq's Sunni heartland. Both town have also witnessed large pro-democracy protests.


"The security apparatus thinks it can wrap this uprising up by relying on the security option and killing as many Syrians as it thinks it will take," a diplomat in the Syrian capital said.

"Tanks are firing their guns at residential buildings in Hama and Deir al-Zor after the two cities were left for weeks to protest peacefully. This is the first time the regime is using tanks with such targeted ferocity," the diplomat said.

The official Syrian news agency said "armed terrorist groups" had abducted three oil-well guards in Deir al-Zor on Wednesday, and killed one policeman.

Authorities say the army had entered Hama to confront "terrorists" who were intimidating inhabitants. State television broadcast footage of armed men who it said had attacked security forces and government buildings in Hama.


A Syrian pharmacist who managed to talk with her family in Hama told Reuters that they had tried to flee but that the 'shabbiha' were randomly shooting residents. Several buildings in Hama had caught fire from tank shelling and snipers were in position on rooftops in Orontes Square, she said.

The Local Coordination Committees grassroots activists' group said in a statement that the authorities were trying prevent any news emerging on the ferocity of the assault. The group said it could no longer contact its members in Hama.

"Communications have been totally cut off in Hama, together with water and electricity. There is a big movement of refugees trying to flee the city," the statement said.

In New York, Indian Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, president this month of the Security Council, read out a statement condemning "widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities."

But it urged all sides to act with restraint, reflecting divisions among the West on one hand and China and Russia, which has a naval base in Syria, on how to deal with Assad.

The only dissenter in the council was Lebanon, where Syrian influence remains strong after a 29-year military presence that ended in 2005. In a rare move, Beirut dissociated itself from a formal statement agreed by the other 14 members.

Syria backs the militant Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah, against the wishes of Syria's Sunni majority population.

The U.N. document agreed after three days of hard bargaining, instead of a full council resolution the West would have preferred, urged Damascus to fully respect human rights and comply with its obligations under international law.

The White House slightly hardened its stance against Assad on Wednesday, saying the United States viewed him as the cause of instability in the country.

"Syria would be a better place without President Assad," White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a news conference.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Arinc Bulent, whose country had grown close to Assad in recent years, issued the strongest condemnation yet of the Syrian president by a Turkish leader.

"I'm saying this on my behalf, what's going on in Hama today is an atrocity ... Whoever carries this out can't be our friend. They are making a big mistake," he said.

The plight of Hama has prompted many Syrians to stage solidarity marches since the start of the holy month of Ramadan earlier this week.

The Syrian Revolution Coordination Union said seven demonstrators were shot dead in attacks by security forces on protests after nightly Ramadan prayers across Syria on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; Editing by Michael Roddy)


UN condemns Syrian crackdown

Published today (updated) 04/08/2011 12:19 UNITED NATIONS (AFP) --

The United Nations condemned on Wednesday the Syrian government's deadly crackdown on protests and called for those responsible to be held "accountable," as tanks stormed the protest hub of Hama.

A Security Council statement agreed after weeks of often-acrimonious talks said the body "condemns the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities."

"The Security Council calls on the Syrian 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," the text read.

The council also called on Syrian authorities to "cooperate fully" with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Lebanon disavowed the statement, saying it would "not help" end the Syrian crisis.

At the same time, the United States hardened its line on Bashar al-Assad, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying Washington had no interest in seeing the Syrian president survive just to preserve regional "stability."

As the diplomatic wrangling drew to a conclusion, Syrian tanks had stormed the city of Hama, activists said.

"There are some 100 tanks and troop carriers on the highway leading to the central city of Hama and about 200 tanks around the eastern city of Deir Ezzor," said Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights chief Rami Abdel Rahman.

Telephone and Internet communication were cut in Hama and nearby areas, he told AFP.

Abdel Raman also reported that a local official in Deir Ezzor "received advice from well-informed sources that residents should flee while they still had time before the army storms the town by Friday."

In Hama, tanks were deployed in several districts and shelling could be heard across many neighbourhoods, another activist told AFP.

"From the sound of the shelling, it sounds like it's open warfare."

The Local Coordination Committees, which represents the protesters, said plumes of smoke could be seen over the city of 800,000 residents.

"People are deserting the city and are faced by live gunfire from security forces and army troops if they don't respond to orders to go back inside," a statement said.

The accounts could not be independently verified as foreign reporters are not allowed to travel in Syria to report on the unrest.

The fierce crackdown on Hama, where an estimated 20,000 people were killed in 1982 when Assad's father Hafez crushed an Islamist uprising, has prompted solidarity protests across Syria and international condemnation.

In other developments, a mosque official said between 800 and 1,000 persons demonstrated after prayers in the northwestern city of Latakia and were dispersed by police with batons. Thirty people were said to have arrested.

The Security Council had been struggling since Monday over how to respond to the crisis, with European powers and the United States seeking a tough condemnation.

Russia, China and some other nations initially blocked any action, saying it could lead to a Libya-style military intervention by the West.

But on Wednesday, ambassadors agreed to a text that would "condemn" Syria, diplomats said.

Following those changes, Russia lifted its objections, with UN envoy Vitaly Churkin calling the new version "balanced."

It was the council's first pronouncement on Syria since protests started on March 15.

The statement dropped references to a human rights inquiry that Britain, France, Germany and Portugal had called for in their earlier versions of the text.

But it said those responsible for the violence would be held "accountable."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had joined the fray earlier this week, saying the Syrian president "lost all sense of humanity."

At the White House, meanwhile, Carney said Washington did not view Assad as "indispensible," saying he was completely "incapable and unwilling" to respond to the grievances of his own people.

"The US has nothing invested in Assad remaining in power. We do not want to see him to remain in Syria for stability's sake and rather we view him as the cause for instability in Syria," Carney said.

Some analysts have speculated that Washington was wary of directly calling for Assad to quit because of anxiety that security chaos, even civil war, and a Middle East power vacuum might follow the demise of his regime.

Global condemnation of the crackdown mounted after weekend violence in which an estimated 140 people were killed in a military assault on Hama and other protest towns.

Meanwhile funerals were held on Wednesday for seven members of the security services and army who were killed by "armed terrorist gangs" in a suburb of Damascus as well as in Homs, Hama and Daraa, SANA said.

State television also aired an amateur video showing corpses being thrown from a bridge into a river, and said the bodies were of security forces killed by protesters. But activists challenged that account, saying the victims were pro-democracy protesters killed by the army.

According to the Syrian Observatory 1,629 civilians and 374 members of the security forces have been killed since pro-democracy protests erupted in Syria on March 15.

On the domestic front the official news agency SANA said parliament would meet in an extraordinary session on Sunday to discuss "issues concerning the nation and its citizens." It did not elaborate.

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