Syrian tanks and troops mounted an all-out assault on the city of Hama yesterday, killing scores of people on the eve of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar.
Government forces swarmed through the city before dawn, after a month-long siege, in what many activists believe was an attempt to crush one of the main centres of protest to the rule of President Bashar Assad in the four-month uprising. There were reports of bodies lying in the streets and snipers were seen firing at protesters from rooftops.
Residents fought back against the tanks with petrol bombs, stones and sticks, according to witnesses.
The operation appeared to be part of a co-ordinated operation on opposition strongholds across the country that left at least 62 people dead, according to witnesses and rights groups. An activist from Hama, who spoke by phone to The Independent, said it had been impossible to rescue some of the injured who were lying in the roads.
"There has been shooting all over the city," said the man, who asked not to be named. "At least one mosque was hit. The security services were surrounding one of the hospitals and were not letting some of the protesters in."
Video loaded on to YouTube yesterday showed doctors trying to revive badly wounded civilians. There were reports that some hospitals were seeking blood donations to help the injured, while gunmen from the feared "shabiha" militias, loyal to the president, were seen roaming the streets.
Hama was the scene of a massacre in 1982 when the current president's father attempted to crush a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. "We got told that Bashar al-Assad was going to deal differently with Hama," said another civilian from the city who spoke to The Independent. "This is what he meant."
Condemnation of the operation was swift. President Barack Obama said he was "appalled" by the crackdown and British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the assaults on civilians were "all the more shocking" because they happened on the eve of Ramadan. Raids were also reported in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus – where witnesses said the security services had injured dozens after throwing a nail bomb at protesters – while in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour at least seven people were killed by soldiers firing machine-guns from tanks.
In Hama, where the worst of the violence occurred, the death toll was estimated to be 49. "It's a massacre. They want to break Hama before the month of Ramadan," a witness told the Associated Press.
Large-scale political gatherings have for decades been banned in Syria by the ruling Ba'ath party. But during Ramadan many Muslims gather in the mosques after breaking their daily fast, and analysts believe some protesters will use the holy month to foment further unrest.
"The Army is trying to clear Hama and a lot of other areas held by protesters so they control those areas during Ramadan," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"That they are doing it on the eve of the Muslim holy month threatens to supercharge already high sectarian tensions throughout the country."
Europe and America have hit the Assad regime with a raft of sanctions, but have otherwise appeared powerless to stop a bloody campaign of state violence, which some activists say has killed more than 1,600 people.Reuse content