AMMAN, (Reuters) – Syrian tanks deployed at the entrances to the city of Hama yesterday but later pulled back, residents said, two days after it saw the largest protest against President Bashar al-Assad since an uprising began three months ago.
Tanks and armoured vehicles headed north after moving close to the city of 650,000 people. Tens of people were earlier arrested in neighbourhoods on the edges of Hama and secret police patrols were seen in the city, they said.
“The regime is using scare tactics, but the people of Hama are not bowing,” one resident said, adding that tens of thousands of people assembled for a night rally at the main square on Sunday despite electricity cuts designed to hamper protests.
In a Damascus suburb that has also seen expanding protests against Assad’s rule, activists and a resident said police shot dead two protesters yesterday.
“It was a usual night demonstration when a hail of bullets hit. Many were also injured,” the resident, who gave his name as Abu al-Nour, told Reuters by phone from the poor suburb of Hajar al-Aswad. The suburb is home to thousands of refugees from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights live.
“It took every one by surprise because it was the first time the ‘amn’ (security police) fired at a night demonstration in Hajar al-Aswad,” he added.
The Local Coordination Committee, a grassroots activists’ group, gave the name of the dead as Mutassem al-Daher and Mouaffaq Khalil.
SPECTRE OF HISTORY
The security forces’ presence had lessened in Hama since they killed at least 60 protesters in the city a month ago in one of the bloodiest days of the uprising against Assad.
Demonstrations have grown in numbers since, witnesses said, with at least 150,000 people assembling at a square on Friday in a rally demanding the removal of Assad, whose father, the late Hafez al-Assad sent troops to the city in the 1982 to crush an Islamist led uprising. That attack killed up to 30,000 people.
Another resident, a shop owner who gave his name as Kamel, said security forces and gunmen loyal to Assad, known as ‘shabbiha’, fired rifles randomly early on Sunday in Hama’s Mashaa district. He added that arrests concentrated on the areas around the football stadium and in Sabounia district.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, president of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed that tanks had withdrawn, saying any military assault on the city could spur Syrians to take to the streets across the country en masse.
“People in the hundreds of thousands protested peacefully in Hama on Friday. The authorities do not have an excuse to say Hama is full of armed terrorist groups,” Abdelrahman told Reuters.