Syria: President's forces pile pressure on Hama

SYRIAN troops kept up attacks on the city of Hama yesterday at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a day after a brutal crackdown against anti-government protesters saw at least 80 people killed.

Sunday was one of the bloodiest days since the uprising against president Bashar al-Assad's authoritarian rule began in mid-March.

The European Union expanded its sanctions against Syria yesterday, imposing asset freezes and travel bans against five more military and government officials. The EU decision brings the number of individuals it has targeted to 35, including Mr Assad. Four government entities are also on the list.

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"Residents are committed to resistance through peaceful means," Hama-based activist Omar Hamawi said by phone.

The city's streets are full of barriers as well as thousands of men "who are ready to defend the city with stones," he said. "People will not surrender this time. We will not allow a repetition of what happened in 1982 (when the president's father brutally quashed an uprising in Hama]."

Mr Hamawi said people in villages and towns around Hama have blocked roads to the city in order to prevent the military from bringing supplies. He added that dozens of checkpoints were set up and activists have blocked the highway linking Aleppo, Syria's largest city, with the capital, Damascus.

The escalating government crackdown appears aimed at preventing the protests from swelling during Ramadan. Muslims throng mosques during Ramadan for special 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 trying to prevent that.

The worst carnage on Sunday was in Hama, a city with a history of defiance against 40 years of Assad family rule. Unlike the majority of Syrians, the Assads are members of the Alawite sect, a sub-sect of Shia Islam.

It appeared the regime was making an example of Hama, a religiously conservative city of about 800,000 people 130 miles north of the capital. The city largely has fallen out of government control since June as residents turned on the regime and blockaded the streets against encroaching tanks.

Yesterday, British foreign secretary William Hague said there is no prospect of international military intervention in Syria, despite an assault by the regime on protest strongholds.

Troops backed by tanks renewed shelling of Hama for a second day in an attempt to subdue the city.Hama resident Saleh Abu Yaman said there was heavy shooting in the north-eastern Hamidiyeh neighbourhood, which he described as a hotbed of anti-regime activists.

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More than 1,600 civilians have been killed in the crackdown on the largely peaceful protests against Mr Assad's regime since the uprising began in mid-March. The regime disputes the numbers and blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying religious extremists, not true reform-seekers, are behind it.

The military assault of the last two days also targeted the eastern city of Deir el-Zour.

Mr Assad said in remarks published yesterday that he remains confident his government will quell the uprising, which he said is aimed at "fragmenting the country as a prelude for fragmenting the entire region". The comments were published in the army's As-Shaab magazine.

In 1982, Mr Assad's father, Hafez Assad, ordered the military to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood. Hama was sealed off; bombs dropped from planes crushed districts and killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people. The true number may never be known - then, as now, reporters were not allowed to reach the area.