Syrian soldiers stormed Hama and other cities that have been flashpoints of unrest, leaving at least 100 dead, as President Bashar al-Assad sought to reassert control on the eve of Ramadan and an intensification of protest.
Tanks bombarded Hama with cannon fire and at least 100 people were killed and dozens wounded, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Damascus-based Arab Organization for Human Rights, said. Three people were killed near the city of Daraa, and there were reports of casualties in Bukamal and Deir Al Zour, Merhi said.
The regime is “very worried that as soon as Ramadan begins there will be daily, nightly protests against it, and this is an attempt by hardliners to give a decisive show of force,” Chris Phillips, a London-based analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in a phone interview. “Given what has happened over the past five months it is highly unlikely this will work.”
Activists, analysts and Syrian refugees have said they expect the uprising to intensify during the holiday, which begins tomorrow. More than 1,950 protesters have been killed since protests began in March, according to Merhi and Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. The unrest poses the biggest challenge to Assad’s rule since he inherited power from his father, Hafez al-Assad, 11 years ago.
Hama was the site of an uprising in 1982 that the current president’s father crushed, leaving about 10,000 people dead, according to Human Rights Watch.
Footage broadcast by Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera today showed columns of black smoke billowing from Hama. The sounds of gunfire and people screaming could be heard. Syrian state television aired a sports program.
Demonstrators, inspired by the overthrow of leaders in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year, are calling for democracy and increased civil rights in the country, which has been ruled by the Assad family for four decades. Syria has been a key opponent of U.S. and Israeli policy in the Middle East, and a power-broker in neighboring Lebanon.
Assad has blamed the protests on foreign-inspired plots, while conceding that some demonstrators have legitimate demands and pledging political changes.
The government last week approved laws that allow new political parties to exist alongside Assad’s Baath party, which has been in power since 1963, and the establishment of a commission to regulate parliamentary elections. The moves and earlier steps toward change have failed to mollify protesters.
The Syrian army, which has been encircling Hama for about a month, also started an offensive in Al-Muadamiya, a suburb of Damascus, Merhi said. More than 2,000 people have been arrested in the past week by authorities, he said.
In Syria, as in other mostly Islamic countries, extended family and community groups typically gather to break the daily Ramadan fast after sunset, and people attend the mosque more frequently than in other months. Mosques have been rallying points for the Syrian protesters and greater attendance may help organizers get more people on the streets, Phillips said.
Hama was the site of an uprising in 1982 that Assad’s father crushed, leaving about 10,000 people dead, according to Human Rights Watch.
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