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Syria tightens Hama siege, Italy pulls ambassador

By Bassem Mroue

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 2 2011 10:38 a.m. MDT

BEIRUT — Syrian troops tightened their siege on the city of Hama Tuesday, sending residents fleeing for their lives and drawing a fresh wave of international condemnation against a regime defying the growing calls to end its crackdown on anti-government protesters.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with U.S.-based Syrian democracy activists as the Obama administration weighed new sanctions on Syria. Congressional calls also mounted for action against President Bashar Assad's regime, as the death toll from two days of military assaults on civilians Sunday and Monday neared 100.

Italy recalled its ambassador to Syria "in the face of the horrible repression against the civil population" by the government, which launched a new push against protesters as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began Monday. It was the first European Union country to pull its ambassador, and the measure came a day after the EU tightened sanctions on Syria.

The mounting international outcry has had no apparent effect so far in Syria, an autocratic country that relies on Iran as a main ally in the region.

The top U.S. military officer said Washington wants to pressure the Syrian regime. But he added there was no immediate prospect of a Libya-style military intervention.

"There's no indication whatsoever that the Americans, that we would get involved directly with respect to this," Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said Tuesday.

And there was no sign that the regime was willing to back down.

There has been an intensified campaign since Sunday, apparently aimed at preventing protests from swelling during Ramadan, when Muslims throng mosques for special nightly prayers after breaking their daily, dawn-to-dusk fast. The gatherings could turn into large protests.

As expected, protests erupted Monday evening across the country, with hundreds turning out in cities including Homs, Latakia, the Damascus suburbs and the eastern city of Deir el-Zour.

There were scattered protests in Hama, but heavy shelling kept most people inside. Hama has been the target of the recent operation because it has emerged as an opposition stronghold.

The city has a history of defiance to the Assad family 40-year dynasty in Syria. In 1982, Assad's father, Hafez Assad, ordered the military to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement. The city 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.

Hama-based activist Omar Hamawi told The Associated Press that troops advanced about 700 yards (meters) from the western entrance of the city overnight, taking up positions near homes and buildings in an area known as Kazo Square. He said the force consisted of eight tanks and several armored personnel carriers.

Hamawi, who spoke to the AP by telephone, said troops were also reinforced on the eastern side of the city around the Hama Central Prison, an overcrowded jail.

He said residents there saw smoke billowing from the prison overnight and heard sporadic gunfire from inside, leading some to believe the inmates were rioting. He added that it was impossible to know what was exactly going on in the prison or whether there were casualties inside the tightly controlled facility.

The activist also said that parts of Hama were hit Tuesday morning with heavy machine gun fire after sporadic shelling overnight. He said a shell hit a compound known as the Palace of Justice in the city center, causing a huge fire that burned much of the building, which is home to several courts.

Activists said around 24 people were killed Monday and 74 on Sunday, most of them in Hama. There were minor discrepancies in Monday's death tolls, ranging from 19 to 25. The differences could not immediately be reconciled.

About 1,700 civilians have been killed since the largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime began, according to tallies by activists.

The regime disputes the toll and blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying gangs and religious extremists — not true reform-seekers — are behind it. State-run TV aired video footage Tuesday purportedly filmed in Hama showing men carrying rifles in the streets of the city — an attempt to bolster their claims that thugs are driving the violence.

Syria has banned independent media coverage and has prevented most foreign journalists from entering the country, making it difficult to verify events on the ground.

AP writer Rebecca Santana in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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