Hama assault into second day, UN revives Syria debate
AMMAN - A two-day assault by Syrian government forces on anti-government protesters in the city of Hama was widely condemned in the West and prompted European powers to relaunch a dormant UN resolution condemning Damascus for its crackdown.
Tanks pounded residential neighbourhoods across the city after evening prayers on Monday, marking the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Earlier, at least four civilians were killed by tank fire on the second day of attacks on the city where memories are still vivid of the brutal suppression of an uprising in 1982.
‘The shells are falling once every 10 seconds,’ a witness told Reuters by phone. The thump of artillery and explosions could be heard in the background. At least 122 civilians taking part in the protests calling for President Bashar Al Assad to give up power have been killed in Syria since Sunday, according to witnesses, residents and rights campaigners.
About 85 of those were in Hama, where Assad’s father crushed an armed Muslim Brotherhood revolt 29 years ago by razing neighbourhoods and killing many thousands of people.
Reacting to the new bloodshed, European powers relaunched a dormant draft UN resolution to condemn Damascus for its crackdown on protesters, circulating a revised text to the Security Council at a meeting on Monday.
Following the hour-long closed-door meeting, several diplomats said that after months of deadlock in the council, the fresh violence appeared to be pushing the divided members towards some form of reaction. But envoys disagreed over whether the 15-nation body should adopt the Western-backed draft resolution or negotiate a less binding statement.
Germany requested the meeting after human rights groups said Syrian troops killed at least 80 people on Sunday when they stormed Hama to crush protests amid a five-month-old uprising against Assad. The Assads have been repeatedly warned by the United States, European Union and Turkey against any attempt to repeat the massacre of Hama.
But the government is signalling to its growing legion of critics abroad that it will not bow to calls for change that have swept across the Arab world, and to its people that it is prepared to all the force at its command to stay in power. Having embarked on a military drive to crush Syria’s democracy protests at all costs, the Assads appear to have decided to raise the cost of protest, just as the Muslim month of Ramadan, which began on Monday, offers the opposition a platform to expand its nearly five-month-old uprising.
‘The assault on Hama is an indication of loss of control. They crossed the threshold,’ said Bassma Kodmani, head of the Paris-based Arab Reform Initiative. ‘They want to show that they can raise the level of repression to the whole country.’
Security forces, dominated by Assad’s minority Alawite sect, had besieged Hama, a mainly Sunni Muslim city of 700,000, for nearly a month before the assault. Analysts said that by choosing to crush the dissent there with overwhelming military force, Assad had chosen a path of no return against those clamouring for his overthrow. ‘What has been clear is that the government is prepared to use force without limit,’ Beirut-based Middle East analyst Rami Khouri told Reuters. ‘But this is not solving the problem. Instead, it is making the rebellion more robust.’
ATTACK IN EAST
Army tanks stormed the eastern town of Albu Kamal after a two-week siege, activists in the region said, as the military stepped up assaults aimed at subduing dissent in the tribal Deir Al Zor province bordering Iraq’s Sunni heartland.
Government armour attacked the town of Zabadani near the border with Lebanon after evening prayers, residents said.
More than 20 tanks and armoured personnel carriers entered the resort town in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountains after people demonstrated in support of Hama, witnesses said.
At least three protesters in Zabadani were wounded by machinegun fire from the tanks, two witnesses said.
Residents said at least 29 civilians had been killed in a weekend tank assault on Deir Al Zor, the provincial capital.
Syrian authorities have expelled most foreign journalists since the anti-Assad protests began in March, making it hard to verify activists’ reports or official statements.
MORE EU SANCTIONS
The European Union extended sanctions against Assad’s government, imposing asset freezes and travel bans on five more people associated with the crackdown. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said more sanctions could be levied unless the Syrian leadership changed course.
Practical action by the UN Security Council on Syria, where rights groups say over 1,600 people have been killed since the uprising began, has until now been paralyzed by disagreements among members.
Western European countries first circulated a draft resolution two months ago but it went nowhere after Russia and China, both allies of Damascus, threatened to veto it. Temporary council members Brazil, India, Lebanon and South Africa also said they did not support it.
Critics have said they fear that even a simple condemnation could be the first step toward Western military intervention in Syria, as happened in Libya in March. US Ambassador Susan Rice described that as a ‘canard’ and said the resolution contemplated no such thing.
Following a briefing on Syria by Oscar Fernandez Taranco, deputy head of the UN political department, all 15 council members spoke but the body took no immediate action, postponing discussion until Tuesday, diplomats said.
The 1982 Hama massacre instilled such fear that few Syrians were ready to challenge Assad family rule openly until this year, when many were inspired by the largely peaceful popular uprisings that toppled Arab autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia.
The Syrian leadership blames ‘armed terrorist groups’ for most killings during the revolt, saying that more than 500 soldiers and security personnel have been killed.
The state news agency said the military entered Hama to purge armed groups that were terrorising citizens, an account dismissed as ‘nonsense’ by a US diplomat in Damascus.
The agency said eight police were killed while ‘confronting armed terrorist groups’ in Hama.
Footage posted on social media showed large parts of the city covered in smoke, and panic-stricken groups around dead or wounded people in the streets as gunfire rang out. Reuters could not independently verify the content of the videos.
US President Barack Obama said he was appalled by the Syrian government’s ‘horrifying’ violence against its people in Hama and promised to work with others to isolate Assad.
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