Syrian forces pound Hama for 2nd day

In this citizen journalism image of Friday, July 22, 2011 made on a mobile phone and provided by Shaam News Network, Syrian anti-regime protesters carry a giant national flag during a rally in al-Assy square in the western city of Hama, Syria. The Arabic on banner reads:"we will never forget our martyrs and prisoners."
AP Photo/Shaam News Network

BEIRUT - Syrian security forces shelled the city of Hama in the second day of a fierce assault aimed at crushing the anti-government protests against President Bashar Assad's regime.

Less than 24 hours after government raids left at least 70 people dead and possibly many more, troops backed by tanks renewed their attempt to subdue Hama, a center of the revolt against the Assad family's rule.

An avalanche of online videos showed what appeared to be the shelling of Hama and victims in local hospitals, but Syria has all but banned foreign journalists from working in the country, so the videos could not be independently verified. Some activists claimed the death toll from the two-day siege had reached 128.

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Hama-based activist Omar Hamawi said tanks opened fire early Monday morning after a night of sporadic shooting. Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso confirmed Hama was being shelled. There was no immediate word on casualties.

Resident Omar al-Habbal said from his vantage point he could see much of Hama under fire on Monday, all over again.

"Every morning at 7:30 (we) start hearing very heavy artillery, shooting and big bombardment," al-Habbal told CBS Radio News on Monday. "Now every 15 to 20 minutes, 10 minutes sometimes, we hear heavy artillery shooting, and some bombing."

Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said there was also intense shooting in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour overnight.

The escalating government crackdown appears aimed at preventing the protests from swelling during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began Monday. Muslims throng mosques during Ramadan 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.

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

Assad said in remarks published Monday in the army's As-Shaab magazine that he remains confident his government will quell the uprising which he said aims at "fragmenting the country as a prelude for fragmenting the entire region."

The worst carnage on Sunday was in Hama, the scene of a 1982 massacre by Assad's late father and predecessor and a city with a history of defiance against 40 years of Assad family rule. Hospitals there were overwhelmed with bloodied casualties, suggesting the death toll could rise sharply, witnesses said.

It appeared the regime was making an example of Hama, a religiously conservative city about 130 miles (210 kilometers) north of the capital, Damascus. The city largely has fallen out of government control since June as residents turned on the regime and blockaded the streets against encroaching tanks.

Osso said as many as 120 were killed in Hama alone Sunday while Abdul-Rahman put the number at 52. The reports could not be independently verified because Syria has banned most foreign media and restricted coverage.

"Resident are committed to resistance through peaceful means," Hamawi told The Associated Press by telephone Monday. He said the city's streets are full of barriers as well as thousands of men "who are ready to defend the city with stones."

"People will not surrender this time. Will not allow a repetition of what happened in 1982," he said.

In 1982, Assad's father, Hafez Assad, ordered the military 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.

The head of the political department of the Syrian army, Lt. Gen. Riad Haddad, said in remarks published Monday that Syria is facing the "closing chapter of the conspiracy."

Haddad called the army's intervention in some Syrian cities an "indispensable necessity" to defend and protect the country's security and stability, and to put an end to armed groups that attack people, smash public and private properties and disrupt public life.