Fears grow as Syrian tanks move in

Syrian activists voiced fears of further bloodshed yesterday as the Baathist regime dispatched tank and troop reinforcements to Hama, the city which was the scene of an infamous massacre in 1982 by President Bashar al-Assad's father.

Army units have been positioned in and around the central Syrian city for weeks, but reports of more troop deployments yesterday ahead of expected demonstrations today have led to fears of more brutal crackdowns.

Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Syrian human rights organisation Insan, said: "I've spoken to people in Hama and they are afraid because they have seen more troops arriving. They don't know if the army is planning night raids. I think it is likely."

In Aleppo, Syria's second city, which has so far escaped widespread disorder, security forces used clubs to disperse about 2,000 demonstrators at the university. There were also reports of sweeping arrests in Latakia and Baniyas, cities in Syria's north-west coastal region.

The prominent activist Najati Tayyara was reportedly among those seized in Homs. A former political prisoner, Tayara played a leading role in a movement demanding political freedoms known as the Damascus Spring that was crushed in 2001, a year after Assad succeeded his late father, President Hafez al-Assad. Human rights groups say more than 750 people have been killed and countless thousands arrested since civil unrest began in mid-March.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington and its allies would hold Assad's government to account for "brutal reprisals" against protesters and may tighten sanctions, but she stopped short of saying that Assad should leave power.

"Treating one's own people in this way is in fact a sign of remarkable weakness," Clinton said during a trip to Greenland. "President Assad faces increasing isolation and we will continue to work with our international partners in the EU and elsewhere on additional steps to hold Syria accountable for its gross human rights abuses."

Asked if Assad had lost his legitimacy to rule, she demurred but said Washington had watched with "great consternation and concern as events have unfolded under his leadership".

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the Syrian attacks "barbaric," adding: "We don't throw the word 'barbaric' around here very often."

The International Commission of Jurists has said that the attacks are a crime under international law.

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