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Dozens of Syrian civilians were killed Sunday as the government launched a major new crackdown on a city that has been a symbol for the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and his regime.
Tanks stormed Hama Sunday morning, shelling the city and firing on civilians, in a likely bid by the Assad regime to quell sustained protests before the holy month of Ramadan begins Monday. Many analysts have predicted that the resilient uprising would swell even larger during Ramadan, when many Muslims gather at mosques for prayers in the evening. Rights groups estimate that the regime's crackdown has already killed about 1,600 people since protests began in March.
Syrian rights groups say that at least 95 people have been killed so far by Syrian troops in Hama, reports the AFP international news service.
Hama had been largely under the control of residents and protesters after the military withdrew in early June, making it a focal point of the resistance. That reprieve, which allowed large protests, including a demonstration of about half a million people on July 1 and another massive protest Friday, appears to have ended now.
Hama was the site of a bloody massacre in 1982, when under Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad, the military bombed, bulldozed, and destroyed the city, killing tens of thousands of residents in order to suppress an Islamist uprising.
The Associated Press reports that residents threw firebombs and rocks at the advancing tanks, and bodies were scattered uncollected in the streets. "It's a massacre, they want to break Hama before the month of Ramadan," an eyewitness told AP.
The Los Angeles Times posted a screen grab from a video of Hama posted on YouTube which shows black smoke rising from the city. This video posted by the Associated Press shows tanks entering the city and a large truck on fire. Protesters can be heard yelling as spurts of gunshots ring out and tanks advance.
Syrian troops have also launched attacks on protesters in other cities. AFP cites rights activists’ reports that six people were killed and 50 wounded by security forces in Deir Ezzor, another hot spot for protests, and three were killed and dozens wounded in Deraa, the starting point of the uprising.
Rights activist Rami Abdel Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP that troops shot dead three people who threw rocks at the military convoy of about 60 vehicles heading into Deir Ezzor. The convoy opened fire after it made its way to the governor’s office, and citizens were afraid of a crackdown, he said.
AFP also reports that a man identifying himself as a Syrian army colonel said he had defected from the Syrian army, had hundreds of troops under his command, and would fight the army if it attacked the people of Deir Azzor. AFP could not verify his claim.
But Reuters reports that an opposition group says 57 soldiers, including two lieutenants and a captain, had defected in Deir Ezzor. The group, the Syrian Revolution Coordination Union, said residents had set up makeshift barriers in an attempt to keep tanks out of the city.