Syrian government launches tank offensive against civilian population

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by a Newsnet reporter

Over 100 people are feared dead and many hundreds seriously injured after the Syrian army launched a tank offensive against the civilian population of the city of Hama.  The city has been a focus of protests against the ruling Baath regime and for the past month has effectively been under the control of demonstrators and the opposition.

Syrian army forces have been surrounding the city for several weeks in an attempt to isolate it from the rest of the country.  However protests in the country continue to grow.  The Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins today, a period when large crowds traditionally gather at mosques and giving the opposition an opportunity to amass demonstrations in even greater numbers, and to do so daily instead of weekly.  It is thought that yesterday’s tank assault was a desperate attempt by the Baathist regime to bring the protests under control before Ramadan begins.

On Sunday morning, local residents reported that the city’s suburbs were shelled and government tanks started to advance on the city centre.  Eyewitness accounts claimed that the government forces were firing randomly.  Tank shells were reportedly falling at the rate of 4 per minute in the northern suburbs of the city, and all electricity and water had been cut off by government forces.  Some residents attempted to fight back with stones and petrol bombs.

Speaking by telephone to Reuters news agency, one resident of the city said, “Tanks are attacking from four directions.  They are firing their heavy machine guns randomly and overrunning makeshift roadblocks erected by the inhabitants.”

Gunmen from the Shabiba militia were reported to be roaming the streets, shooting randomly.  The Shabiba militia is composed of members of the Alawite minority, to which President Assad belongs.  Hama is a predominantly Sunni city.

Hama was the scene of a massacre in 1982 carried out by government forces loyal to the father of the current president.  It is believed that over 20,000 people were killed and entire city districts were razed to the ground.  

Elsewhere in Syria government tanks also moved in on the city of Deir-ez-Zor in the east of the country, and six civilians were reportedly killed by government security forces in the town of al-Hirak.

The Syrian government claimed on state television that the army was forced to intervene after “armed gangs” attacked the local population.  Speaking to the BBC, JJ Harder, the US press attaché at the embassy in Damascus, dismissed the claims as “nonsense” saying, “There is one big armed gang in Syria and it’s named the Syrian government.”

He added, “It is desperate. The authorities think that somehow they can prolong their existence by engaging in full-armed warfare on their own citizens.”

President Barack Obama issued a strong condemnation of the Syrian authorities, saying he would continue efforts to “isolate” President Assad.

“The reports out of Hama are horrifying and demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime,” the US president said in a statement.  “Syria will be a better place when a democratic transition goes forward.  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.”

William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said he was “appalled” by the reports from Hama.  “Such action against civilians who have been protesting in large numbers in the city for a number of weeks has no justification.”

A spokeman for UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon said, “The secretary general reminds the Syrian authorities that they are accountable under international human rights law for all acts of violence perpetrated by them against the civilian population.”