Syrian forces killed more than 50 people yesterday as they launched full-scale military assaults on two towns that had seen major protests in opposition to the Assad family's four-decade rule.
The relentless crackdown was swiftly followed by a message of condemnation from the Arab League, its first significant criticism of the Syrian regime's ruthless suppression of nearly five months of anti-government protests.
The military offensives came a week after President Bashar al-Assad sent his forces into Hama to retake the city that has emerged as a symbol of defiance in Syria's uprising. Scores were killed in the days-long operation, provoking global outrage.
At dawn, some 200 tanks rolled into the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, which has been under siege for days. Tanks shelled buildings, while snipers positioned on rooftops picked off "anything that moves," according to the Local Coordination Committee, which has organised many of the protests. More than 40 people were killed, activists claimed.
"Human conditions in the city are very bad since it has been under siege for nine days," an activist in Deir al-Zour told the Associated Press.
"There is lack of medicine, baby formula, food stuff and gasoline. The city is totally paralysed."
Syrian forces yesterday also attacked Houleh, a town in central Syria that had also seen large protests, killing at least 10. The government has used the holy month of Ramadan to subdue towns that have dared to defy Mr Assad's rule, fearful that dissenters could use daily prayers to ramp up the protests calling for wide-ranging political reform.
Residents of Deir al-Zour had expected the regime to retaliate, and had met to discuss the possibility of putting up armed resistance. Their fears of an attack were heightened after the crackdown in Hama last Sunday that left nearly 100 dead by some estimates.
Footage aired by state television this weekend showed a shattered city, its buildings ravaged and its deserted streets strewn with debris. Hama, the scene of an uprising brutally crushed in 1982, remains under siege, starved of electricity and outside communications, and a London-based Syrian human rights body said yesterday that eight newborn babies died in their incubators after the power supply was cut.
Mr Assad defended the crackdown, saying that Syria had embarked on a path of reform, and that its actions were aimed at safeguarding its citizens against "outlaws". "To deal with outlaws who cut off roads, seal towns and terrorise residents is a duty of the state which must defend security and protect the lives of civilians," he said.
Hours earlier, the international community had issued fresh appeals to Mr Assad to stop the violence. Human rights bodies say Syrian forces have killed more than 1,600 civilians since March.
Last night Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador in Damascus and King Abdullah issued a statement demanding an end to Syria's "death machine".