DAMASCUS // A Ramadan military offensive to crush Syria's popular uprising escalated further yesterday when security forces backed by tanks killed more than 50 people in the desert city of Deir Ezzor and in villages close to Homs.
Human-rights monitors and local residents said armoured units began shelling the Jura residential district of Deir Ezzor, in the heart of Syria's eastern Sunni tribal heartlands, during the early hours of the morning.
Tanks, which had encircled the city for weeks, then entered the urban centre, taking up positions at key road junctions and outside government buildings.
Electricity was cut, security units forcibly closed all hospitals in the area and ambulances were deliberately prevented from reaching the wounded, according to civil-rights activists and local residents.
Ad-hoc aid stations were set up in mosques, they said, and doctors gave what treatment they could in general-practice clinics ill-equipped to deal with serious injuries caused by shooting and exploding shells.
"They were firing artillery from tanks directly into Jura. The sound was deafening," said a Deir Ezzor resident from his home next to the target area.
Refugees fled the assault, walking in 50-degree heat across a bridge over the Euphrates, seeking safety in outlying villages and the neighbouring provinces.
"I've never seen anything like it. It reminded me of the stories people tell about the Palestinians fleeing their homes in the 1948 war," said another Deir Ezzor resident. He said the escape route had eventually been sealed off by eight tanks blocking access to the bridge.
"People are very afraid and very angry. Many people have left or are hiding," he said.
"No ambulances can get in to help. The hospitals have been shut. There is no electricity. Many people have been badly wounded. The number of dead will surely rise."
Abdul Karim Rehawi, a Damascus based human-rights monitor, said more than 42 civilians had been killed by early afternoon. Other reports suggested the real number had climbed to 70 by yesterday evening. None of the counts could be independently confirmed.
Syrian state-run media denied tanks had opened fire and said army units had removed illegal roadblocks and were seeking to restore calm to the city.
Deir Ezzor and Hama have both been hit in military operations since the start of Ramadan. In recent weeks both cities had slipped out of government control, staging massive peaceful rallies demanding the downfall of the president, Bashar Al Assad, and the autocratic police state established by his father, Hafez Al Assad, more than four decades ago.
Such open dissent in other parts of the country has drawn a similar response, with a string of cities and villages subjected to military offensives. The civilian death toll nationwide has now passed 2,000, according to human-rights groups, with more than 15,000 demonstrators and dissidents jailed.
Al Hula, a rural district of three villages 30km east of Homs in central Syria, was also targeted yesterday by forces supported by tanks. "At least eight civilians, including two children, were killed and every male over the age of 18 was arrested," said Mr Rehawi. Electricity and phones to the area were cut.
International condemnation of Syria continued to grow. The Arab League yesterday voiced "growing concerns and strong distress" over the violence in Hama and Deir Ezzor. The Gulf Cooperation Council called on Saturday for an immediate end to bloodshed and for serious political reforms.
Mr Al Assad and his top officials remained defiant yesterday. They rejected the GCC statement and said it had ignored the facts.
The regime claims it is fighting a highly organised, armed Islamist insurgency, backed by foreign states, that has killed more than 500 security personnel.
Mr Al Assad said yesterday he was fighting outlaws who were terrorising citizens, and real political reforms were under way, according to Sana, Syria's state news agency.
Claims that democratic changes are happening simultaneously with deadly military operations and mass arrests have brought a scathing response from demonstrators, dissident intellectuals and the United Nations.