Syrian troops kept up attacks on the restive city of Hama today, the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a day after a brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters killed at least 70 and drew harsh rebukes from the US and Europe.
Sunday was one of the bloodiest days since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's authoritarian rule began in mid-March. Six Syrian rights groups said in a joint statement that 74 people were killed throughout the country, 55 of them from Hama and neighbouring villages.
The European Union expanded its sanctions against Syria today, imposing asset freezes and travel bans against five more military and government officials. The EU decision brings the number of individuals targeted by the EU to 35, including Assad. Four government entities are also on the list.
"Residents are committed to resistance through peaceful means," Hama-based activist Omar Hamawi told The Associated Press by telephone today. The city's streets are full of barriers as well as thousands of men "who are ready to defend the city with stones," he said. "People will not surrender this time. We will not allow a repetition of what happened in 1982," he said.
Hamawi said residents in villages and towns around Hama have blocked roads and highways leading to the city in order to prevent the military from bringing supplies. He added that dozens of checkpoints were set up and activists have blocked the highway linking the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, with the capital Damascus.
The escalating government crackdown appears aimed at preventing the protests from swelling during Ramadan. Muslims throng mosques during Ramadan for special nighttime prayers after breaking their daily dawn-to-dusk fast. The gatherings could trigger intense protests throughout the predominantly Sunni country and activists say authorities are trying to prevent that.
The worst carnage on Sunday was in Hama, the scene of a 1982 massacre by Assad's late father and predecessor and a city with a history of defiance against 40 years of Assad family rule. Hospitals there were overwhelmed with casualties, suggesting the death toll could rise sharply, witnesses said.
It appeared the regime was making an example of Hama, a religiously conservative city of about 800,000 people some 130 miles north of the capital, Damascus. The city largely has fallen out of government control since June as residents turned on the regime and blockaded the streets against encroaching tanks.
Troops backed by tanks renewed shelling of Hama for a second day in an attempt to subdue the city.
Hama resident Saleh Abu Yaman said there was heavy shooting in the northeastern Hamidiyeh neighbourhood — which he described as a hotbed of anti-regime activists. Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said troops raided Hamidiyeh and killed at least two people and wounded 10. He cited hospital officials in the city.
Abdul-Rahman said security forces shot another person dead in the eastern town of al-Boukamal near the border with Iraq.
The Local Coordination Committees, which helps organise anti-government protests, said five people were killed today of which three were in Hama, one in al-Boukamal and another in the nearby city of Deir el-Zour.
Hamawi said tanks resumed fire on Hamidiyeh this morning after a night of sporadic shooting. Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso confirmed Hama was being shelled.
More than 1,600 civilians have been killed in the crackdown on the largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime since the uprising began in mid-March. But the regime disputes the toll and blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying religious extremists — not true reform-seekers — are behind it.
The military assault yesterday and today also targeted the eastern city of Deir el-Zour. Abdul-Rahman said there was intense shooting in the city overnight and residents in nearby towns told him that a convoy, including 80 tanks, was on its way today to Deir el-Zour in what could be preparation to expand the military operation.
He said troops backed by tanks also entered the town of Houla in central province of Homs today.