Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Syria forces occupy central Hama as U.N. condemns violence

Syrian tanks occupied the main square in central Hama Wednesday after heavy shelling of the city, residents said, taking control of the site of some of the largest protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
Human rights campaigners say more than 90 people have been killed in Hama since Assad unleashed a military assault on Sunday to regain control of the city, scene of a 1982 massacre of anti-government rebels.
At the United Nations, the Security Council condemned human rights violations and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities -- its first substantive action on the five-month-old uprising.
But it urged all sides to act with restraint, reflecting divisions among world powers on how to deal with the crisis.
Wednesday's push into the heart of Hama coincided with the opening of the trial in Egypt of former President Hosni Mubarak, toppled by an uprising which shook the Arab world and inspired the protests against Assad.
"All communications have been cut off. The regime is using the media focus on the Hosni Mubarak trial to finish off Hama," one resident told Reuters by satellite phone from the city.
He said tanks and military units including paratroopers and special forces were seen moving to the central Orontes Square from the south, accompanied by militia known as 'shabbiha'.
Residents said shelling concentrated on al-Hader district, large parts of which were razed in 1982 when Assad's late father President Hafez al-Assad crushed an armed Islamist uprising, killing thousands.
A Syrian pharmacist who managed to talk with her family in the city told Reuters that they had tried to flee but that the 'shabbiha' were randomly shooting residents. Several buildings in Hama had caught fire from tank shelling and snipers were in position on rooftops in Orontes Square, she said.
The Local Coordination Committees grassroots activists' group said in a statement the authorities were trying prevent any news from emerging on the ferocity of the assault. The group could no longer contact its members in Hama.
"Communications have been totally cut off in Hama, together with water and electricity. There is a big movement of refugees trying to flee the city," the statement said.
Authorities say the army has entered Hama to confront gunmen who were intimidating residents. State television broadcast footage of armed men in civilian clothes who it said had attacked security forces and government buildings.
Syria has expelled most independent media, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and authorities.
The assault suggests Assad will resist calls for change that have swept Syria and much of the Arab world, and has led to Western calls for tougher international measures.
The U.N. Security Council Wednesday condemned "widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities."
The document, agreed after three days of hard bargaining, also urges Damascus to fully respect human rights.
Syria's neighbor Lebanon, where Damascus' influence is strong, disassociated itself from the formal statement agreed by the other 14 members of the council. A Lebanese envoy said the Western-drafted statement would not help the situation.
The council called for "an immediate end to all violence and urges all sides to act with utmost restraint, and to refrain from reprisals, including attacks against state institutions."
That phrase was a gesture to Russia and other countries that had called for a balanced statement that would apportion to both sides blame for the violence. Western nations say the two sides cannot be equated.More...

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