x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

120 dead as tanks sweep into Hama in Syrian uprising's worst day of violence

Chilling echo of the repression ordered by the current Syrian president's father in the 1980s that saw thousands massacred is condemned by top politicians in Europe and America.

DAMASCUS // Syrian security forces killed more than 120 people yesterday in what human rights activists called the bloodiest single day since the current uprising began almost five months ago.

Army operations hit multiple parts of the country simultaneously. Tank-backed infantry units firing shells and heavy machine guns swept into Hama at dawn, residents said, heralding the start of a long-anticipated crackdown on a city that had become a model for large-scale peaceful dissent.

For weeks, non-violent demonstrations calling for the toppling of the president, Bashar Al Assad, and the autocratic system of government he heads had routinely involved more than half a million people, prompting some to declare Hama "liberated".

The prospect of such a major urban centre slipping beyond the authorities' control appears to have prompted yesterday's significant military escalation.

More than 90 civilians were killed by security services in Hama, activists said. Residents and medical staff described rooftop security-force snipers shooting at people in the streets with the wounded and dying overwhelming hospital facilities. Electricity, water and communications were cut.

Syrian security forces also conducted deadly offensives yesterday in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, another rebellious city with growing mass protests, and in parts of southern Syria and working-class districts surrounding the capital, Damascus.

The repression in Hama has a huge symbolic resonance. During the 1980s, President Hafez Al Assad, the current leader's father, despatched elite armoured units against the city in response to a militant Islamist uprising. Entire districts were razed and tens of thousands of people killed, leaving a permanent scar on the psyche of the nation.

In Deir Ezzor city, in the heart of Syria's Arab tribal region, at least 19 people were killed by security forces yesterday, activists said, with further deaths in Abu Kamal on the Syria-Iraq border and in Harak, a village in the Houran plain, close to the city of Deraa, the original centre of the uprising.

Moadamiya, on the outskirts of Damascus, was placed under a renewed military siege, while residents in Harasta, also on the edge of the capital, said more than 40 protesters were wounded when pro-government forces threw fragmentation bombs into a crowd.

"It's a day of disaster, there are many dead, many have been seriously wounded and will die, and hundreds have been arrested," Abdul Karim Rehawi, head of the Syrian Human Rights League, an independent civil-liberties group based in Damascus, said.

"It seems the authorities have decided to try to finish everything at the start of Ramadan. They have seen cities out of their control and they are moving to crush it."

State-run media accused "terrorist groups" of shooting at civilians and attacking security forces in Hama and Deir Ezzor, killing at least two police officers, overrunning security buildings and stealing weapons.

"Scores of gunmen were stationed on the rooftops of the main buildings in the streets of Hama, carrying the latest machine guns and RPGs and shooting intensively to terrorise citizens," the official news agency, Sana, claimed.

It said security units had exchanged fire with the armed groups and would deal with the situation in "suitable ways".

Syrian authorities insist they are fighting an insurrection by Islamist militants, as they were in the 1980s. That claim is rejected by activists, dissident intellectuals, human rights monitors and international organisations, including United Nations agencies, who say the pro-democracy uprising is a largely peaceful call for increased rights.

Ramadan has been seen as critical period in the uprising, both for the authorities and protesters. Activists hope the daily ritual of evening prayers and shortened work hours together with deepening economic problems will bring more demonstrators more regularly on to the streets, pushing them closer to the critical mass that could lead to regime collapse.

Officials, who have long insisted that the worst of the months-old crisis is over, have been hoping that with long summer days of Ramadan fasting, fatigue will set in and break the protests' momentum.

European nations, which have already imposed economic sanctions against leading Syrian regime figures, said further punitive measures were now under consideration.

The German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said: "I am deeply shocked by what we are currently seeing in Syria." He demanded an immediate end to military operations.

"If President Assad fails to change course, we and our partners in the EU will impose new sanctions," he said.

In Washington, the US president, Barack Obama, said he was appalled by the violence and brutality the Syrian government had aimed at its own people.

psands@thenational.ae