BEIRUT — Anti-government protesters in the Syrian city of Hama set up barricades and took up sticks and stones to defend themselves Monday after one of the bloodiest days so far in the regime’s campaign to quell an uprising now in its fifth month.
The protesters vowed not to allow a repeat of 1982, when thousands of people were killed in Hama after President Bashar Assad’s father ordered a massacre.
As evening fell, residents said Syrian tanks resumed intense shelling of the restive city and troops fired machine-guns at worshippers about to head to mosques for special nighttime prayers on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Residents had just broken their daily dawn-to-dusk fast, and the shelling appeared aimed at preventing the mosque gatherings, fearing they would trigger large anti-government protests.
It was the second day of shelling of Hama and other cities. In attacks earlier in the day, four people were killed in Hama and three more were killed in other parts of the country, residents and rights groups said.
“It’s a crime! Where is the world? Why doesn’t anyone see?” cried one distraught resident through the phone, the sound of gunfire heard clearly in the background. The residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said they were certain there were casualties, but there was no immediate word on numbers.
The current crackdown appears aimed at preventing protests from swelling during Ramadan. Muslims throng mosques during Ramadan for the special nightly prayers after breaking their daytime fast. The gatherings could then turn into large protests throughout the country.
Sunday’s violence left 74 people dead throughout the country, 55 of them from Hama and neighbouring villages, according to a statement issued by six Syrian rights groups.
The attacks drew harsh rebukes from the U.S. and Europe, which expanded its sanctions against Syria, imposing asset freezes and travel bans against five more military and government officials Monday.
“We find these violent attempts by the Syrian regime to target civilians on the eve of Ramadan to be despicable and abhorrent,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
In Hama, many people were too frightened to venture out after the evening barrage of shellfire, but a few groups of people staged scattered protests in the city’s main Assi square.
Elsewhere, tens of thousands of Syrians in the central city of Homs, Damascus suburbs and areas of the south marched out of mosques after evening prayers chanting slogans of support for the people of Hama and calling for the downfall of the regime.
The Observatory for Human Rights said security forces opened fire on protesters in the Damascus suburb of Moadamiya, killing one and wounding five others. Troops also opened fire on a protest in Homs, but there was no word on casualties.
The international community has grown increasingly outraged by the Assad regime’s attacks against civilians, but has so far refrained from calling on him to step down. On Monday, Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague said there would be no international military intervention in Syria.
The U.N. Security Council scheduled closed-door consultations on Syria late Monday at Germany’s request.
Germany, Britain, France and Portugal have tried unsuccessfully since April to get the U.N.’s most powerful body to condemn Syrian attacks on unarmed civilians. The United States strongly supports their efforts and a draft resolution the Europeans circulated in late May, but they have faced opposition from veto-wielding Russia and China as well as South Africa, Brazil and India, which holds the council presidency this month.
In unusual criticism of the Assad regime, Russia voiced concern Monday over the loss of lives in Hama. The Russian Foreign Ministry urged the Syrian government to stop violence immediately and give up provocations and repression.
It appeared the regime was making an example of Hama, a religiously conservative city of about 800,000 people some 210 kilometres north of the capital, Damascus. The city largely has fallen out of government control since June as residents turned on the regime and blockaded the streets against encroaching tanks.
Early Monday, tank shells slammed at a rate of one every minute into the northeastern Hamidiyeh neighbourhood of Hama, killing two people, including a man whose ceiling collapsed as he slept with his family, residents said.
A resident who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals said there were about 50 tanks in roundabouts at the entrances to the city. Pro-regime snipers were shooting randomly, he said.
“It’s not an official curfew, but in effect, anyone who goes out risks being shot at,” he said.
Hama-based activist Omar Hamawi told The Associated Press by telephone Monday that “residents are committed to resistance through peaceful means.”
The city’s streets are full of barriers as well as thousands of men “who are ready to defend the city with stones,” he said. “People will not surrender this time. We will not allow a repetition of what happened in 1982.”
Hamawi said people were resorting to vigilante protection to defend themselves, improvising means to obstruct the movement of soldiers and pro-regime gunmen known as shabiha.
“People are using trees, tires, sticks and garbage containers, placing them on main and side roads to keep them away,” he said. “Some even took down their garden fences and put them on their streets.”
Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said two people were killed in the attack on Hamidiyeh neighbourhood and two others in a nearby district. More than 10 others were wounded, he said, citing hospital officials in the city.
Abdul-Rahman said security forces shot and killed another two people in the eastern town of al-Boukamal near the border with Iraq. They included a 13-year-old with a bullet wound in his head, according to The Local Coordination Committees, which helps organize anti-government protests.
Residents told the AP that Sunday’s shelling struck several homes and mosques and destroyed a pharmacy.
Amateur videos posted online by activists showed the shrapnel and bullet-pocked beige and brown facade of the Hamidiyeh Mosque, its windows broken, a hole in one of its walls.
About 1,700 civilians have been killed since the largely peaceful protests against Assad’s regime began in mid-March, according to tallies by activists. The regime disputes the toll and blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying religious extremists — not true reform-seekers — are behind it.
Assad said in remarks published Monday that he remains confident his government will quell the uprising, which he said is aimed at “fragmenting the country as a prelude for fragmenting the entire region.” The comments were published in the army’s As-Shaab magazine.
The military assault on Sunday and Monday also targeted the eastern city of Deir el-Zour. Abdul-Rahman said there was intense shooting in the city overnight and that residents in nearby towns reported a convoy, including 80 tanks, on its way to Deir el-Zour.
He said troops backed by tanks also entered the town of Houla in central province of Homs on Monday.
Hama, the focus of the crackdown, has a history of defiance.
In 1982, Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, ordered the military to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement. The city was sealed off and bombs dropped from above smashed swaths of the city and killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people, rights groups say.
The real number may never be known. Then, as now, reporters were not allowed to reach the area.
Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue can be reached at http://twitter.com/zkaram and http://twitter.com/bmroue