The Syrian military tightened its suffocating siege on the city of Hama yesterday and activists said security forces killed at least 24 civilians the day before in a nationwide crackdown on anti-government protesters.
A Hama resident said tanks shelled the city on Friday night, which resulted in several casualties. He said there were reports that at least one of the hospitals in the city had been targeted.
Authorities have imposed a media blackout on Hama and the reports could not be immediately confirmed.
Syria’s government has broadcast images of buildings and empty rubble-strewn streets in Hama, the epicenter of the protests, claiming the military was putting an end to an armed rebellion launched by “terrorists.”
The brutal crackdown has sparked international outrage, and a group of Gulf Arab countries yesterday broke their silence on the bloodshed, calling for an immediate end to the violence and for implementation of “serious” reforms in Syria.
In a statement posted on its Web site, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) expressed deep concern and regret for “the escalating violence in Syria and use of excess force. “GCC countries ... call for an immediate end to the violence and any armed appearances, as well as an end to the bloodshed,” it said.
Syrian government forces launched the Hama assault on Sunday last week, cutting off electricity, phone services and Internet and blocking supplies into the city of 800,000 as they shelled neighborhoods and sent in tanks and ground raids.
It appeared to be an all-out attempt to take back the city — which has a history of dissent — after residents all but took it over since June, barricading it against the regime. Rights group say at least 100 people have been killed, while some estimates put the number as high as 250.
The tolls could not be verified because of the difficulty reaching residents and hospital officials in the city, where journalists are barred as they are throughout Syria.
Across the country, tens of thousands of protesters marched on Friday, chanting their -solidarity with Hama and demanding the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso said at least 24 civilians died on Friday, most of them in Damascus suburbs when security forces opened fire during daytime protests and late night demonstrations following evening Ramadan prayers. He said five were killed in Hama and its surrounding countryside.
The toll was confirmed yesterday by the Local Coordination Committees, a key activist group tracking the Syrian uprising.
The US State Department on Friday urged Americans to leave the country immediately and advised those who remain to restrict their movements. The warning came as US congressmen called for US President Barack Obama’s administration to impose severe new sanctions on Assad’s regime.
In a new travel warning, the department said Americans should depart Syria while commercial flights and other transportation are still available “given the ongoing uncertainty and volatility of the situation.”