Tanks surround Syrian city of Hama after protests

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian tanks surrounded Hama today, residents and activists said, threatening a large-scale assault on the city after the biggest protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Hundreds of youths blocked roads leading to the city’s main residential neighbourhoods with garbage containers, wood and metal to try to prevent a possible advance. Inhabitants joined in their shouts of “God is greatest,” from balconies and rooftops, residents said.

Tanks and armoured vehicles moved overnight to the edges of the city, including 30 seen near a flyover on a road leading west, they said, a day after hundreds of troops and security police entered Hama at dawn in buses, killing at least three people in raids on main neighbourhoods.

Hama, scene of a bloody crackdown by Assad’s father nearly 30 years ago, has witnessed some of the biggest demonstrations and highest death tolls in Syria’s 14-week uprising, inspired by revolts across the Arab world.

“Assad may wait to see whether large-scale protests in Hama continue. He knows that using military aggression against peaceful demonstrations in a symbolic place like Hama would lose him support even from Russia and China,” Syrian activist Mohammad Abdallah told Reuters from exile in Washington.

The two countries have opposed a United Nations Security Council resolution proposed by the West against Syria, helping Assad withstand mounting international isolation.

Abdallah said using tanks to attack Hama would “totally discredit” a promise by Assad to seek dialogue with his opponents. Troops and armour were already assaulting villages and towns in the Jabal-al-Zawya region, north of Hama, which had also seen large protests against Assad’s 11-year rule, he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said tanks stormed the town of Kfar Nubbul early today “without meeting a single shot in the town that has seen peaceful protests since the beginning of the uprising.”

One month ago, security forces shot dead at least 60 protesters in Hama, activists said. The security presence later eased and last Friday a crowd of at least 150,000 people rallied in a central Hama square demanding Assad go, according to activists.

The following day, Assad sacked the provincial governor and yesterday residents said troops and police poured into Hama to carry out arrests.

The three people killed by the security forces included a 13-year-old boy and a man whose body had been dumped in the Orontes river, a doctor in Hama said. Residents said some of the soldiers and police opened fire in residential neighbourhoods and carried out arrests across the city.

Young men, some carrying stones, blocked roads leading to central neighbourhoods with burning tyres and garbage containers, they added.

Rami Abdelrahman, president of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Reuters that at least 250 people were arrested across Hama on Monday.

“The regime could not stand the large, peaceful protests and the fact that the governor did little to stop them. It has decided to subdue Hama one way or the other,” he said.

The authorities have banned most international media from operating in Syria since the protests began in March, making it difficult to verify reports from activists and authorities.

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