x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Claim militant attacks creating 'city of ghosts' in Hama

Officials in Hama want soldiers to stay in the urban centre to prevent insurgents taking over.

HAMA // Officials in Hama have warned that ongoing militant attacks are turning it into a "city of ghosts" and that soldiers must stay in the urban centre to prevent insurgents taking over.

Anas Al Naem, Hama's provincial governor, said the presence of heavily armed troops in fortified positions throughout the city centre and outlying districts had brought a marked improvement in security since July.

But bombings, kidnappings and carjackings remain a problem, he said during a tour of the city with foreign journalists on November 17, organised and accompanied by the Syrian authorities.

The reporters were shown a riot police centre, a security officers club and the law courts, all of which had been badly damaged in simultaneous attacks by anti-regime groups on July 31.

Hama, 210 kilometres north of Damascus, is Syria's fourth largest city with population of 700,000.

"Until today there are a lot of kidnappings and carjackings with drivers being abducted," Mr Al Naem said during the tour. "Several days ago the mayor in one of the rural villages was kidnapped. Of course, the people being kidnapped are killed and their corpses are sent back to their families. For the last two months there have been more than four or five people kidnapped every week."

Bombings were now routine, Mr Al Naem added.

Under an Arab League peace plan agreed to by Damascus, troops were to have been pulled out of urban areas by no later than Saturday. That plan seemed to have collapsed, however, with President Bashar Al Assad making it clear that army units would remain deployed in what Syrian officials said was a struggle against foreign-backed Islamic terrorists.

Dr Al Naem said the local economy was suffering from fuel-supply problems, a result of delivery lorries being "looted" en route.

"About 20 per cent of the economy is lost," he said. "Some days we have all the province and the city calm and on other days there are problems, They [opposition activists] might call a strike or there is an attack, and in five minutes it is a city of ghosts."

Hama became a focal point in the Syrian uprising in June, three months after the protests started. With demonstrators regularly staging large protests in defiance of security services - activists claimed hundreds of thousands were taking part - Hama appeared to be slipping beyond government control.

As the demonstrations picked up momentum throughout July, Ahmed Kahled Abdul Aziz, who was serving as provincial governor at the time - and who was lauded by opposition figures for taking a moderate line on peaceful protests - was sacked. Dr Al Naem was appointed as his replacement and shortly afterwards military forces began a Ramadan offensive to regain command of the city. Opposition activists said more than 100 civilians were killed in the attack.

Dr Al Naem said the military operation had been necessary because Hama has been "suffering for several months under the domination of terrorist groups".

"After they started to kidnap citizens, there had to be operations by the Syrian army at the end of July to reopen the city and to restore security," he said. "At the time, the armed groups sabotaged a lot of public and private property."

According to Dr Al Naem, 200 people, the majority of them "armed terrorists", were killed in Hama between the start of the uprising and the completion of the military offensive, including 80 militants who had taken over a barracks. In addition 150 soldiers and security officers had either been killed or injured in Hama during the uprising, he said. He blamed Islamic extremists, armed groups and drug dealers for killing innocent residents, saying "all the violence is coming from the armed groups".

Dismissing claims that as many as 500,000 anti-regime protesters had taken to the streets of Hama before the army operations began, Dr Al Naem said he supported holding talks with peaceful members of the opposition and defended the government's record on reforms, saying political change was under way.

"We hope it won't take a long time to return to normal," he said. "Everyone is tired, the people are tired."