Syrian security forces killed at least 62 people today in an escalation of the crackdown on protests ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, activists and residents said.
Most died in raids on the flashpoint city of Hama, where a barrage of shelling and gunfire left bodies scattered in the streets.
Demonstrations calling for President Bashar Assad’s ousting are expected to swell during Ramadan, which starts Monday, in Syria.
Security forces appeared to be racing against time as they stormed and raided cities and small villages across the country in an attempt to crush a remarkably resilient uprising that began in mid-March.
Having sealed off the main roads into the opposition stronghold of Hama almost a month ago, army troops in tanks pushed into the city from four sides before daybreak today in a coordinated assault.
Residents shouted “God is great!” and threw firebombs, stones and sticks at the tanks. The crackle of gunfire and thud of tank shells echoed across the city, and clouds of black smoke drifted over rooftops.
“It’s a massacre. They want to break Hama before the month of Ramadan,” an eyewitness who identified himself by his first name, Ahmed, told The Associated Press by telephone from Hama, where at least 49 people were killed.
Hospitals were overwhelmed with casualties and were seeking blood donations, he said.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said the attacks against civilians were “all the more shocking” on the eve of Ramadan and appeared to be part of a “coordinated effort to deter Syrians” from protesting during Ramadan.
“President Bashar is mistaken if he believes that oppression and military force will end the crisis in his country. He should stop this assault on his own people now,” Mr Hague said in London.
During Ramadan, Muslims throng mosques for special night prayers after breaking their daily dawn-to-dusk fast. The gatherings could trigger intense protests throughout the predominantly Sunni country and activists say authorities are moving to ensure that does not happen.
Other raids were reported in southern Syria and in the suburbs of the capital Damascus. In the neighbourhood of al-Joura in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, soldiers in tanks fired machine guns, killing at least seven people, activists said.
In the village of al-Hirak in the southern province of Daraa, residents said security forces killed four people after opening fire on residents as people ventured into the streets to buy bread.
A resident who gave his name as Abu Mohammed said more than 40 were wounded and 170 detained in house-to-house arrests.
He said some soldiers defected to the protesters after having refused orders to shoot at civilians.
The reports could not be independently verified because Syria has banned most foreign media and restricted coverage.
A spokesman for The Local Coordination Committees, which organises and monitors anti-government protests in Syria, said the group had the names of 49 civilians who died in Sunday’s onslaught on Hama.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of The London-based Observatory for Human Rights, quoting hospital officials in Hama, confirmed that death toll and said two more people were killed in Souran in the Hama countryside, in security forces’ fire.
Both said the number of deaths in Hama is likely to be higher as many of the dead have yet to be identified and many suffered critical wounds.
An activist and Hama resident who identified himself as Saleh Abu Yaman said some soldiers had defected and were fighting against troops loyal to the regime. He said snipers had taken up position on the rooftops of government buildings in the city.
Another resident said the city had been expecting an assault after security troops and pro-government thugs started streaming into the city overnight.
Residents set up sand and stone barricades to try and keep troops out, and set fire to tyres.
An estimated 1,600 civilians have died in the crackdown on the largely peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad’s regime since the uprising began. Most were killed in shootings by security forces on anti-government rallies.
The government has sought to discredit those behind the protests by saying they are terrorists and foreign extremists, not true reform-seekers.
State-run news agency SANA said gunmen in Hama and Deir el-Zour had erected barricades and sand barriers in the streets, and that extremists in Hama torched police stations, destroyed public and private property and fired from rooftops. It said two policemen, an officer and two soldiers were killed.
Hama, about 130 miles north of the capital Damascus, has become one of the hottest centres of the demonstrations, with hundreds of thousands protesting every week in its central Assi Square.
In early June, security forces shot dead 65 people there. Since then it has fallen out of government control, with protesters holding the streets and government forces ringing the city and conducting overnight raids.
The city has a history of dissent against the Assad dynasty. In 1982, Assad’s late father, Hafez Assad, ordered his brother to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement. The city was sealed off and bombs dropped from above smashed swaths of the city and killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people, rights groups say.
The real number may never be known. Then, as now, reporters were not allowed to reach the area.