Thursday, August 04, 2011

Syrian tanks 'shell' restive city of Hama

Activists report blasts in besieged city, as UN Security Council agrees
"in principle" on critical statement.

Aug. 3, 2011 Al Jazeera

Fresh explosions have erupted in the Syrian city of Hama as President
Bashar al-Assad's government showed no signs of halting the intense
military assault against an uprising now in its fifth month, activists

Residents said on Wednesday that Syrian tanks had occupied the main
Orontes Square in central Hama, the venue of some of the largest
demonstrations against Assad's rule during the uprising.

"The regime is using the media focus on the Hosni Mubarak trial to finish
off Hama," one of the residents told the Reuters news agency by satellite
phone from the city, referring to the televised trial of the former
Egyptian president.

The resident added that the shelling concentrated on al-Hader district,
large parts of which were was razed during a 1982 military assault on Hama
that killed thousands.

Details on the blasts heard early on Wednesday were unclear, as phone
lines to Hama appeared to have been cut, making it impossible to confirm
events on the ground, Al Jazeera's Rula Amin said from neighbouring
Lebanon. Our correspondent also said residents were reporting renewed
shelling in parts of the city.

"Early this morning people heard the sound of bombs," Rami Abdul-Rahman,
head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

"There are some 100 tanks and troop carriers on the highway leading to the
central city of Hama and about 200 tanks around the eastern city of Deir
ez-Zoor," he said.

The observatory relies on a network of sources on the ground throughout

Syrian troops have tightened their siege on Hama since Sunday, sending
residents fleeing for their lives.

The death toll since Sunday has reached about 100 people, but the exact
figure was difficult to verify, according to activists.

Syrian state news agency SANA has said ambiguously that parliament will
meet in an extraordinary session on Sunday to discuss "issues concerning
the nation and its citizens".

International condemnation

The operation has drawn a fresh wave of international condemnation against
a regime defying the growing calls to end its crackdown on anti-government

Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Arinc Bulent has said that an attack by
Syrian security forces on the city of Hama is an "atrocity" and a
government that sanctioned such brutality could not be called a "friend".

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, met US-based Syrian democracy
activists on Tuesday as the Obama administration weighed new sanctions on

US congressional calls also mounted for action against Assad's regime.

Italy on Tuesday recalled its ambassador to Syria "in the face of the
horrible repression against the civil population" by the government, which
launched a new push against protesters as the Muslim fasting month of
Ramadan began on Monday.

It was the first European Union country to pull its ambassador, and the
measure came a day after the EU tightened sanctions on Syria.

The mounting international outcry has had no apparent effect so far in
Syria, an autocratic country that relies on Iran as its main ally in the

About 1,700 civilians have been killed since the largely peaceful protests
against Assad's regime began, according to tallies by activists.

Syria has banned independent media coverage and has stopped most foreign
journalists from entering the country, preventing independent assessments
of the events.

Agreement 'in principle'

At the UN, world leaders on Wednesday came to a preliminary accord on how
to deal with Syria's repression of protesters after three days of

"The UN Security Council has reached an agreement in principle on a
'Presidential Statement', which is weaker than a resolution," Al Jazeera's
Kristen Saloomey, reporting from the UN, said. "Countries are now
referring the draft to their capitals for final approval, and if there are
no objections, it will be adopted by consensus at 3pm [local time]."

"Western diplomats don't think it's productive at all to go easy on the
Assad regime," our correspondent said earlier on Wednesday. "The Russians,
pressing for a balanced approach, point out that 350 Syrian security
people have been killed in the violence."

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin had called the new text circulated by
European nations as "detrimental" to efforts "to do everything possible to
pull away from the brink of civil war where Syria is finding itself,
unfortunately and tragically".

India's UN Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, who currently presides over the
15-nation council, said earlier that two unnamed council members were
opposed to a resolution while a third member, Lebanon, was against any
statement criticising Syria. The two opposing members were known to be
Russia and China.

However, Russia had indicated that it would not oppose a council
resolution condemning the violence.

Sergei Vershinin, chief of the foreign ministry's Middle East and North
Africa department, told Russian news agencies that Russia is "not
categorically against'' adopting a new UN resolution on Syria but said
such a resolution should not impose sanctions because that would only
escalate the conflict.

The 15-nation council has been under mounting international pressure to
take a stand on violence in Syria, yet some diplomats said they would seek
to agree on a less formal statement, with no warning of UN action.

Syrian forces occupy central Hama square: residents

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian tanks occupied the main square in central Hama on
Wednesday after heavy shelling of the city, residents said, taking control
of the site of some of the largest protests against President Bashar

Human rights campaigners say more than 90 people have been killed in Hama
since Assad launched a military assault on Sunday to regain control,
triggering international condemnation and calls from U.S. senators for
sanctions on Syria's energy sector.

At the United Nations, a diplomat said the Security Council had
"substantially agreed upon" a draft statement that would condemn human
rights violations and use of force against civilians by Syrian
authorities. The council diplomat said the statement could be adopted
later on Wednesday.

Wednesday's push into the heart of the city coincided with the opening of
the trial in Egypt of former President Hosni Mubarak, toppled by an
uprising which shook the Arab world and inspired the protests against

"All communications have been cut off. The regime is using the media focus
on the Hosni Mubarak trial to finish off Hama," one resident told Reuters
by satellite phone from the city.

He said tanks and military units including paratroopers and special forces
were seen moving to the central Orontes Square from the south, accompanied
by militia known as 'shabbiha'.

Residents said shelling concentrated on al-Hader district, large parts of
which were razed in 1982 when Assad's late father President Hafez al-Assad
crushed an armed Islamist uprising, killing thousands.

Authorities say the army has entered Hama to confront gunmen who were
intimidating residents. State television broadcast footage of armed men in
civilian clothes who it said had attacked security forces and government

Syria has expelled most independent media, making it difficult to verify
accounts from activists and authorities.

The plight of Hama has prompted many Syrians to stage solidarity marches
since the start of the holy month of Ramadan earlier this week.

But Assad's response suggests he will resist calls for change that have
swept Syria and much of the Arab world, and has led to Western calls for
tougher international measures.

"The United States should impose crippling sanctions in response to the
murder of civilians by troops under the orders of President Assad," U.S.
Senator Mark Kirk said on Tuesday.

Kirk, a Republican, was introducing legislation in Washington to target
firms that invest in Syria's energy sector, purchase its oil or sell

His bill was also sponsored by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and
independent Senator Joseph Lieberman, who said it was time to push for "a
democratic transition that reflects the will of the Syrian people."

Washington says Assad has lost legitimacy and has imposed sanctions on the
president and his top officials, but has stopped short of directly calling
on him to leave office as it did to Mubarak and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

Western officials fear instability in Syria and the wider Middle East if
protesters oust Assad, whose family has ruled for four decades and kept
Syria's frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights quiet despite its
anti-Israel alliance with Iran.


The state news agency SANA said oil production in the first half of the
year had risen marginally to 387,000 barrels per day, suggesting the
unrest has had little impact on output. Around 40 percent of the oil was
exported, earning vital revenues for an economy hit by a sharp fall in

Human rights campaigners said the assaults by Assad's forces across Syria
on Monday and Tuesday had killed at least 27 civilians, including 13 in
Hama. That brought the total to about 137 dead throughout Syria since
Sunday, 93 of them in Hama, according to witnesses, residents and rights

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Arinc Bulent, whose country had grown close
to Assad in recent years, issued the strongest condemnation yet of the
Syrian president by a Turkish leader.

"I'm saying this on my behalf, what's going on in Hama today is an
atrocity ... Whoever carries this out can't be our friend. They are making
a big mistake," he said.

"We insisted on democratic and peaceful solutions and starting reforms. We
told them they would collapse otherwise ... Recent events show no lessons
were learned from these suggestions," he told reporters.

At the United Nations Russia and some other countries had sought a
statement that would blame both Syrian authorities and the opposition for
the violence, but Western nations say the two sides cannot be equated.

The Syrian news agency said "hundreds of masked gunmen on motor bikes" had
set fire to the main law court in Hama on Monday afternoon and vandalized
much of the building.

SANA said "armed terrorist groups" had killed eight policemen in Hama. The
government blames such groups for most killings in the five-month-old
revolt, saying more than 500 soldiers and security personnel have died.
Opposition and human rights groups say more than 1,600 civilians have been

Dozens of people were wounded on Tuesday when demonstrators demanding the
toppling of Assad in the western Damascus suburb of Mouadhamiya, the
northeastern city of Hasaka and the port city of Latakia came under fire
after the nightly prayers, residents said.

"Ten buses full of security entered Mouadhamiya. I saw 10 youths falling
down as I was running away from the gunfire. Hundreds of parents are in
the streets looking for their sons," said one witness in Mouadhamiya, 30
km (20 miles) from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

In the eastern Damascus suburb of Erbin, a witness told Reuters that one
mourner was killed on Tuesday when Assad's forces fired at a funeral for
five residents shot dead by security forces there on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn and Malathi Nayak in Washington,
Patrick Worsnip in New York and Ece Toksabay in Istanbul; Writing by
Dominic Evans; Editing by Jon Boyle)

No comments: