Syrian forces attack two more flashpoint cities

Attacks on the central city of Houleh and the eastern city of Deir El Zour come on the heels of the Syrian regime's new promise to hold free and fair elections.

By , Correspondent

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    The central Syrian city of Hama, in an image released by the Syrian national press agency.
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Syrian forces attacked two more cities Sunday that have been flashpoints for anti-regime protests, a week after bombarding and laying siege to Hama, a city that has been central to the five-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

The attacks, which killed at least four people, come a day after Syria’s foreign minister said the country would hold free and fair elections, a promise unlikely to end the uprising and subsequent bloody crackdowns. They also come one day after Gulf nations criticized the violence in Syria, adding to an international chorus of condemnation over a bloody government crackdown that has killed more than 1,600 people.

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The six-country Gulf Cooperation Council called for an immediate halt to the violence, for implementation of reform, and expressed concern for “the escalating violence in Syria and use of excessive force.”

The Syrian regime has called the protesters armed gangs trying to harm the nation.

Syrian troops attacked the city of Houleh, in central Syria and stormed Deir El Zour in eastern Syria Sunday. Both cities had seen large anti-government protests.

The Associated Press reports that a rights group claimed at least four people were killed Sunday in Houleh, while a local coordinating committee claims seven deaths. In Deir El Zour, an activist told the AP that troops stormed the city at 4 a.m., attacking from four sides and taking control of eight neighborhoods. The number of casualties is unclear because many people are being treated in homes and mosques when they cannot reach the hospital. “Human conditions in the city are very bad since it has been under siege for nine days,” the activist told the AP. “There is lack of medicine, baby formula, food stuff and gasoline. The city is totally paralyzed.”

Reuters reports that tanks have moved into the city, and quotes a resident who said that three people have died in the assault.

The New York Times reports that Assad’s regime had until recently largely avoided attacking Deir El Zour out of a desire to avoid provoking the tribes there, because those tribes have wide influence and some of whom are well-armed.

“The government was very cautious to begin a military operation in our region because most of the tribes members are armed with AK-47s and rifles and they are ready to fight and not allow the regime to do the same thing as it did in Hama or Dara’a,” an activist named Ammar told the Times, adding that an attack on Deir El Zour will provoke retaliation from tribes in other provinces.

The Times reports that Syrian forces arrested a well-known tribal leader in Deir El Zour last month, and tensions had since risen as clan elders negotiated with security forces. According to the Associated Press, the tribes in Deir El Zour stretch into Iraq, and have been armed by Assad in the past to fight Syria’s Kurds.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Moallem said Saturday that the government would implement reforms, including free parliamentary elections to be held by the end of the year. The Parliament would “represent the aspirations of the Syrian people,” and the elected Parliament will have the power to review law, he said, according to the AP.

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