Syrian troops hit cities, kill at least 70
Assaults timed to block protests
BEIRUT - Syrian military and security forces assaulted Hama and other restive cities before dawn yesterday, killing at least 70 people in what activists and residents called the broadest and fiercest crackdown yet by the government of President Bashar Assad on the 4-month-old uprising against his rule.
The simultaneous raids on several cities came a day before the start of the holy month of Ramadan, during which activists had vowed to escalate their uprising with nightly protests.
The scale of the assault and the mounting death toll underscored the government’s intention to crush the uprising by force, despite international condemnation and Syria’s own tentative and mostly illusory reforms ostensibly aimed at placating protesters’ demands.
The scenes of bloodshed in Hama and Deir al-Zour, which had slipped beyond the government’s control this summer, were certain to put more pressure on world leaders, in particular the United States, to take a harder line against Assad.
In statements they reiterated yesterday, US and European officials have harshly criticized the Syrian president. President Obama described the crackdown in Hama as horrifying events that “demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime.’’ But his administration has yet to demand formally that Assad leave power, as it has with Moammar Khadafy in Libya.
“Once again, President Assad has shown that he is completely incapable and unwilling to respond to the legitimate grievances of the Syrian people,’’ Obama said. “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.’’
The attacks also cast new light on decisions of the Syrian government itself, which seems to lack any consistent strategy. The assault on Hama ended before nightfall, suggesting the government was bent mostly on intimidating a city where hundreds of thousands have turned out for weekly protests on Fridays.
Syrian forces also arrested a tribal leader in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, a detention sure to further roil a city whose residents are defiant and armed.
“The street won’t retreat,’’ Omar Habbal, an activist in Hama, said by phone. “The city has decided to defend itself, and if they think they can crush the rallies, they’re stupid.’’
The fiercest operation was in Hama, a city of 800,000 in central Syria, where at least 50 people were killed, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group that helps organize and document protests. Activists offered different accounts of the toll; some put it at 76 or even higher.
The numbers were impossible to confirm, on a chaotic day punctuated by rumors of military desertions, calls for revenge, and government claims of armed insurgents firing at civilians that tested logic.
Since June, Hama has been largely free of security forces, allowing it to assert a measure of independence. In recent weeks, residents have built makeshift barricades of everything from street lights to cinderblocks and sandbags to prevent security forces from reentering. The defenses, however, stood little chance against tanks and armored vehicles, which began their assault from four directions before dawn.
Many in Syria had believed that the government would not dare to try to retake Hama, given its bloody history with the government. In 1982, under the orders of Assad’s father, Hafez, a military assault crushed an Islamist uprising in the city, one of Syria’s most conservative, killing at least 10,000 people and perhaps many more. The episode marks one of the most brutal in the history of the modern Middle East.
Residents offered wrenching accounts yesterday of youths trying to block the way of tanks with little more than sticks, stones, and iron bars. Some of the young men in the town, who have manned barricades nightly for weeks, set fire to tires. Hospitals appealed for donations of blood as the toll mounted through the day, and videos posted on the Internet showed gray columns of smoke billowing over the city.
The Syrian government offered a wholly different account of the events, which was contested by everyone reached by phone in the city. It said dozens of gunmen had set up on rooftops and were “shooting intensively to terrorize citizens,’’ the Syrian state news agency SANA reported. It said insurgent groups had set fire to police stations, vandalized public and private property, and set up roadblocks and barricades.
“Army units are removing the barricades and roadblocks set up by the armed groups at the entrance of the city,’’ the state news agency reported.
The version of events echoed the government’s longstanding contention: that it faces an armed uprising led by militant Islamists and backed by foreign countries. This time, it said armed men carried guns and rocket-propelled grenades, though not a single weapon was seen in the streets when a New York Times reporter visited this month.
J.J. Harder, spokesman for the US Embassy in Damascus, termed the government’s account nonsenseand called Syrian officials delusional.
“They keep talking about armed gangs, but there is one armed gang in this country, and it is the Syrian government itself,’’ he said.
As the government pressed its assault on Hama, other units attacked Deir al-Zour, Syria’s fifth-largest city, in a region that produces most of the country’s gas and oil. The committee said at least 11 people were killed there yesterday. For days, the government had signaled a campaign against the city, one of Syria’s most restive and most dangerous given the ties of the expanded clans that knit it together.
A leading clan figure there, Nawaf al-Bashir, was arrested Saturday, said Omar Idlibi, a committee spokesman, in a move sure to inflame the already angry populace.
Another assault was reported in the southwestern province of Daraa, where the uprising began in mid-March, when security forces arrested and tortured a dozen youths for scrawling antigovernment writings on walls in the provincial capital. Six people reportedly had been killed in the town of Herak.