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Syrian tanks storm protest epicenter of Hama

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BEIRUT — Syrian troops launched a major offensive Sunday to crush a four-month-old rebellion against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, sending tanks into the protest flash point of Hama and storming several other towns in what appeared to be an all-out effort to silence the revolt.

At least 100 people died across the country, including 74 in Hama, the protest movement’s biggest symbol of hope, making this the second-bloodiest day since the uprising began in March and the largest in scale since tanks first moved against protesters in April.

In some of his sternest comments yet on the bloodshed in Syria, President Obama said he was “appalled by the Syrian government’s use of violence and brutality.” He called the reports out of Hama “horrifying” and said they “demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime.”

For the first time, troops attempted to crack down in several locations simultaneously, including the eastern town of Deir al-Zour, a protest stronghold near the Iraqi border, and in towns in the north and south.

The coordinated assaults, said Wissam Tarif of the human rights group Insan, signaled a strategy to head off protest movement promises to escalate demonstrations during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Monday.

Yet as night fell Sunday and sympathy demonstrations erupted in towns and cities around the country, it was unclear whether the strategy would work.

“This uprising is not repressed,” Tarif said. “On the contrary, they have only made people more angry. They want to rebuild the wall of fear, but they can’t do it.”

Saleh al-Hamoui of the Syrian Revolution Coordination Union, a group that monitors and plans protests, said the army had secured several key locations in Hama, including the mayor’s office and the city hall, but had not penetrated the heart of city, where fresh anti-government demonstrations were held Sunday evening.

Troops had given protesters an ultimatum, telling them to go home by midnight or face worse violence, he said, raising the specter that the killing could continue into Ramadan, which would inflame tempers further.

“We are going to stand against them in the coming hours or days, because we are going to die whether we resist or whether we don’t,” Hamoui said. “So we will resist.”

It was the assault on Hama, whose bloody past endows it with a unique role in the Syrian national consciousness, that resonated most with citizens around the country, as troops used tanks and artillery to pound neighborhoods and soldiers opened fire randomly as they tried to advance into the city.

Hama had emerged in recent weeks as the epicenter of the protest movement, with residents effectively seizing control of the city center and erecting barricades at its entrances to keep soldiers out. Many had hoped the authorities would not dare attempt to retake the city by force, because of its sensitivity as the location of a 1982 massacre in which at least 10,000 people were killed during the suppression of an Islamist revolt by Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.

U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Ford drew the wrath of the Syrian government by visiting Hama in early July in a gesture of American support for the protesters. The demonstrations there have been the largest in the country, drawing crowds of hundreds of thousands in recent weeks.

Shortly before dawn Sunday, tanks began moving toward the makeshift barricades, and by sunrise, they had launched a full-scale assault, firing between 100 and 150 shells in an hour at one point, residents said.

Activist Omar al-Habbal, who spoke by telephone from Hama, described how residents swarmed onto the streets to defend the barricades with sticks, stones, knives and burning tires as the tanks approached.

“Today, they started a new massacre in Hama,” he said. “People are fighting tanks with their bare chests. We are in the Stone Age facing this military assault.”

On three occasions, Habbal said, soldiers told citizens they were defecting to join the opposition, allowed protesters to pose for photographs on their tanks, then opened fire. “It was a trick to try and get deeper into the city,” he said, which perhaps explained the flurry of rumors about army defections Sunday.

The official Syrian news agency painted a different picture, saying that two police officers were killed when they confronted “armed groups.” It said that “scores” of gunmen were shooting from rooftops and that police stations had been set on fire.

Government spokeswoman Reem Haddad said that reports of brutality were overstated and that troops had moved into Hama only to dismantle the barricades and open up roads, not to suppress dissent.

“It’s not that people are unable to protest, they have been protesting,” she said, speaking by telephone from Damascus. “But you simply can’t block roads. Protesting is one thing, but stopping normal life from going on is another cup of tea, and you can’t allow that in any normal country.”

She confirmed that there had been shooting and said there were casualties on both sides. “These aren’t normal citizens, these are people with guns, they are dangerous,” Haddad said.

Most international reporters have been denied permission to enter Syria, and the conflicting reports could not be verified.

But although there have been scattered reports of violence around the country since the uprising began in March, the protests in Hama are renowned for being peaceful, diplomats say. Ford noted following his visit that there was no sign that any of the protesters were armed.

“Hama has shown itself to be a model of peaceful protests, and they’re unleashing full-on warfare against it,” said J.J. Harder, press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. “It’s egregious because of the peaceful nature of the protests.”

With the Obama administration distracted by budget negotiations, Syria policy has slipped to the back burner. But that could change this week, in the wake of the violence and with Ford due to attend Senate confirmation hearings Wednesday.

With some Republicans already calling for him to be withdrawn from Damascus, the discussions are expected to be “intense,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Until now, we’ve been really careful to adhere to a policy of ‘do no harm’ in Syria,” he said. While condemning the violence, he said, the United States is “very clearly hedging, because we don’t know if this regime is going to fall down and when. But what’s happening makes it clear they’re not listening.”

Obama pledged Sunday that “in the days ahead, the United States will continue to increase our pressure on the Syrian regime and work with others around the world to isolate the Assad government and stand with the Syrian people.”

Yet the assault demonstrated the seeming impotence of the international community to influence the behavior of a relatively isolated regime that has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to use maximum force to remain in power. At least 1,600 people have been killed since the uprising began in March, nearly 3,000 have disappeared and more than 20,000 have been detained, according to human rights groups.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Assad in May that “we do not want to see another Hama massacre,” and implied there would be consequences should there be an assault on the town. The visit by Ford, who was accompanied by the French ambassador, appeared to signal that the United States also would not tolerate an assault against Hama.

But with NATO entangled in what is proving to be a prolonged war in Libya and many in Western capitals uncertain who the Syrian protesters are, world powers have been reluctant to get involved in the uprising beyond issuing statements condemning the violence.

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