Syrian Siege of Hama Raises Humanitarian Concerns

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BEIRUT -- Gunmen in plainclothes are randomly shooting people in the streets of the besieged Syrian city of Hama and families are burying their loved ones in gardens at home for fear of being killed themselves if they venture out to cemeteries, a resident said Thursday.

Military forces on Sunday launched an offensive against anti-government dissent in Hama and at least 100 people have been killed since, according to human rights groups. Phones, Internet and electricity have been cut or severely hampered for days. The resident told The Associated Press people are being forced to ration food and share bread to get by during the holy month of Ramadan, when many Muslims fast from dawn to dusk then celebrate with large, festive meals after sundown.

"People are being slaughtered like sheep while walking in the street," said the resident, who spoke by phone on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "I saw with my own eyes one young boy on a motorcycle who was carrying vegetables being run over by a tank." He said he left Hama briefly through side roads to smuggle in food supplies.

The resident said around 250 people have been killed since Sunday. Hozan Ibrahim, of the Local Coordination Committees which tracks the crackdown on protesters, said up to 30 people may have been killed in Hama Wednesday only based on reports from fleeing residents. But neither of those numbers could be immediately verified.

Families have resorted to burying their loved ones in home gardens or roadside pits "because we fear that if we go to the cemetery, we will end up buried along with them," the resident said.

He said the army and pro-government gunmen known as "shabiha" have been shooting randomly at people and keeping food supplies from entering the city. He said he knew they are allied with the military because they sometimes walk behind soldiers and talk to them.

Activists have expressed concern about worsening humanitarian conditions in Hama, saying medical supplies and bread were in short supply even before the latest siege. Phones and Internet in Hama have been cut or severely hampered for at least two days. Electricity has been out or sporadic since Sunday.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the London-based Observatory for Human Rights, said some 1,000 families have fled Hama in the past two days, most of them to the village of Mashtal Hilu west of Hama and al-Salamieh to the east.

The siege of Hama is part of a new government offensive to put down the country's uprising against President Bashar Assad's authoritarian rule. Now in its fifth month, the protests have been gaining momentum in defiance of the military crackdown.

Hama, a city of 800,000 with a history of dissent, had fallen largely out of government control since June as residents turned on the regime and blockaded the streets against encroaching tanks.

But Syrian security forces backed by tanks and snipers launched a ferocious military offensive that left corpses in streets Sunday and sent residents fleeing for their lives, according to residents.

In 1982, Assad's father, Hafez Assad, ordered the military to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement there. Hama 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.

In other parts of Syria, security forces killed at least seven protesters overnight when they went out to demonstrate after special nighttime prayers for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, activists said.

Assad has sought to deal with the extraordinary revolt against his family's 40-year-dynasty through deadly force, but has also acknowledged the need for reform.

On Thursday, he issued two legislative decrees that will allow the formation of political parties alongside the Baath Party and enable newly formed parties to run for parliament and local councils. Both draft bills were endorsed by Cabinet last month, and were key demands of the opposition movement. But opposition figures now dismiss the moves as maneuvering tactics and insist they want regime change.

On Wednesday, Syrian tanks stormed Hama under heavy shelling, taking over a main city square. Activists said authorities have effectively imposed a news blackout on the city by cutting cellular and land lines and Internet.

Phone calls by the Associated Press to the city on Thursday were not going through. Abdul-Karim Rihawi, Damascus-based chief of the Syrian Human Rights League, said there was no information coming out from Hama on Thursday.

"A high number of casualties is expected from such a massive military operation," he said.
Rihawi said that elsewhere in Syria, seven people were killed by security forces Wednesday night. Two protesters were shot dead in the Damascus central neighborhood of Midan, three in the southern village of Nawa and one in the ancient city of Palmyra. An 11-year-old boy was also killed when security forces opened fire on a protest in Talbiseh, near Homs, he said.

He said more than 60 Syrian children have died since the start of the protests in March.
The Local Coordination Committees confirmed the deaths.

Since Ramadan started on Monday, Muslims have been thronging mosques for the special nightly prayers after breaking their dawn-to-dusk fast. The gatherings have turned into large anti-government protests that draw fierce military force to try to break them up.

Abdul-Rahman said military operations were also under way in the central city of Homs, where heavy machine guns and automatic gunfire was heard throughout the night in the Bab Sbaa and Qalaa districts. At least 27 people have been arrested in security raids, he said.

Amateur videos posted by activists online showed dozens of people in Damascus' district of Midan clapping their hands and shouting: "We don't love you, Bashar!" and "Bashar, leave!" after emerging from the city's Daqaq Mosque. The footage, which activists said was taken Wednesday night, then shows chaos breaking out as gunfire is heard, and the camera zooms onto vehicles with bullet holes and smashed windows.

Another video also posted overnight showed a large group of people in Hama's Kfarzita district marching and shouting: "The people want to topple the regime."

The military offensive against Hama, 130 miles north of the capital Damascus, prompted the U.N. Security Council to act after months of deadlock.

A Council statement late Wednesday condemned Assad's forces for attacking civilians and committing human rights violations. It called on Syrian authorities to immediately end all violence and launch an inclusive political process that will allow the Syrian people to fully exercise "fundamental freedoms ... including that of expression and peaceful assembly."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the statement "demonstrates the rising international concern at the unacceptable behavior of the regime and shows that President Assad is increasingly isolated."

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called the statement "a turning point in the attitude of the international community" and said Syria must now halt the attacks and implement reforms.

About 1,700 civilians have been killed since the uprising began in mid-March, according to tallies by activists.

Authorities in Syria blame the unrest on a foreign conspiracy and armed extremists seeking to destabilize Syria, as opposed to true reform-seekers.