Syrian security forces killed at least 62 people yesterday in an escalation of the crackdown on protests ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, activists and residents said. Most died in raids on the flashpoint city of Hama, where a barrage of shelling and gunfire left bodies scattered in the streets.
Demonstrations calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster are expected to swell during Ramadan, which starts today, in Syria. Security forces appeared to be racing against time as they stormed and raided cities and small villages across the country in an attempt to crush a remarkably resilient uprising that began in the middle of March.
Having sealed off the main roads into the opposition stronghold of Hama almost a month ago, army troops in tanks pushed into the city from four sides before daybreak yesterday in a coordinated assault. Residents shouted “God is great!” and threw firebombs, stones and sticks at the tanks.
“It’s a massacre. They want to break Hama before the month of Ramadan,” an eyewitness who identified himself by his first name, Ahmed, said by telephone from Hama, where at least 49 people were killed yesterday.
Hospitals were overwhelmed with casualties and were seeking blood donations, he said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the attacks against civilians were “all the more shocking” on the eve of Ramadan and appeared to be part of a “coordinated effort to deter Syrians” from protesting during Ramadan.
“President Bashar is mistaken if he believes that oppression and military force will end the crisis in his country. He should stop this assault on his own people now,” Hague said in London.
During Ramadan, Muslims throng mosques for special night prayers after breaking their daily dawn-to-dusk fast. The gatherings could trigger intense protests throughout the predominantly Sunni country and activists say authorities are moving to ensure that does not happen.
Other raids were reported in southern Syria and in the suburbs of the capital Damascus. In the neighborhood of al-Joura in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, soldiers in tanks fired machine guns, killing at least seven people, activists said.
In the village of al-Hirak in the southern province of Daraa, residents said security forces killed four people early yesterday after opening fire on residents as people ventured into the streets to buy bread.
A resident who gave his name as Abu Mohammed said more than 40 were wounded and 170 detained in house-to-house arrests.
He said some soldiers defected to the protesters after having refused orders to shoot at civilians.
The reports could not be independently verified because Syria has banned most foreign media and restricted coverage.
A spokesman for The Local Coordination Committees, which organizes and monitors anti--government protests in Syria, said the group had the names of 49 civilians who died in yesterday’s onslaught on Hama.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the London-based Observatory for Human Rights, quoting hospital officials in Hama, confirmed that death toll and said two more people were killed in Souran in the Hama countryside, in security forces’ fire.
Both said the number of deaths in Hama is likely to be higher as many of the dead have yet to be identified and many suffered critical wounds.