As Syrian tanks close in, a key city waits
BEIRUT — Syrian tanks rolled toward a tense central city mourning the deaths of dozens of protesters, reaching the outskirts late yesterday hours after a funeral procession through streets lined with shuttered shops and uniformed security forces, witnesses said.
The government lifted its stranglehold on the Internet, which has been key to motivating people to join the 11-week uprising, but the crackdown that has left more than 1,200 dead since March did not relent: Troops killed at least six protesters in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, according to the Local Coordination Committees, which helps organize and document protests calling for an end to President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Syria’s state-run news agency, SANA, said “armed criminal groups’’ attacked some police stations in Jisr al-Shughour, killing two policemen. It said the attackers captured weapons from the stations. The Syrian government blames armed gangs and religious extremists for the violence.
More than 70 protesters were killed across Syria Friday, in what appeared to be among the largest demonstrations yet in the country. At least 65 of those were in Hama, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The tanks at the entrance to Hama caused new alarm. The city rose up against Assad’s father in 1982, only to be crushed by a three-week bombing campaign that killed thousands; memories of those days are still raw.
“Dozens of tanks are reaching the southern outskirts of the city,’’ said an activist who lives in a nearby town. “They will probably lay a siege then storm Hama.’’
A Hama resident confirmed tanks reached the outskirts of the city. He said he had not yet seen them, but others had.
“May God protect us,’’ the man said, his voice shaking.
The Local Coordination Committees says at least 1,270 people have been killed and more than 10,000 arrested since the uprising began in March.
The move toward Hama could mean that the army is preparing for a major operation there, similar to offensives in other areas in the past weeks such as the southern city of Daraa, the coastal city of Banias and the central town of Rastan where operations are still underway.
After noon prayers — and before the arrival of the tanks — tens of thousands of people streamed out of mosques carrying coffins of the dead and headed toward the two main cemeteries, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the rights group’s director.
As they marched in the streets carrying the coffins, the protesters chanted “our souls, our blood we sacrifice to you martyr.’’ They later passed by hundreds of uniformed security members guarding a statue of the late President Hafez Assad, the father and predecessor of the current president, at the southern entrance of the city, witnesses said.