Syria claims progress in crushing Hama uprising

By Zeina Karam

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Aug. 5 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

CLARIFIES THAT IMAGE IS MADE FROM TELEVISION -- In this image from television Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011 and released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, empty streets with debris are shown of what SANA describes as the Syrian army restoring "security and stability" to the central city of Hama, Syria. Syrian security forces pounded the city of Hama with tank shelling and opened fire on protesters who streamed into the streets across the country Friday Aug. 5, 2011 calling for the downfall of President Bashar Assad, killing at least four and wounding more than a dozen.


BEIRUT — Syria's government proclaimed Friday that it was succeeding in crushing the uprising in the city of Hama, the epicenter of anti-regime protests, showing TV images of burned buildings and rubble-strewn streets. Under a suffocating siege, residents of the city warned that medical supplies were running out and food rotting after six days without electricity.

Across the country, tens of thousands of protesters marched through cities, chanting their solidarity with Hama and demanding the ouster of President Bashar Assad. They were met by security forces who opened fire, killing at least 13 people, activists said.

Their numbers were lower than previous Fridays, when hundreds of thousands nationwide turned out for protests — likely because this was the first Friday in the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn until dusk and go outside less, particularly in the summer heat. That could augur disappointment for protest leaders, who had hoped to escalate the uprising during the month and even mark a turning point in the quest to topple the 40-year Assad family dynasty's rule.

Government forces began their siege on Hama on Sunday, cutting off electricity, phone services and internet and blocking supplies into the city of 800,000 as they shelled neighborhoods and sent in 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 over, barricading it against the regime. Rights group say at least 100 people have been killed so far while some estimates have put the number as high as 250.

The tolls could not be verified because of the difficulty reaching residents and hospital officials in the besieged city, where journalists are barred as they are throughout Syria.

Tanks shelled residential districts starting around 4 a.m. Friday, just as people were beginning their daily fast — mirroring a round of bombardment the evening before at sunset when they were breaking the fast, one resident told The Associated Press.

"If people get wounded, it is almost impossible to take them to hospital," the resident said by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Syrian state media on Friday proclaimed that army units are "working to restore security, stability and normal life to Hama" after it was taken over by "terrorists."

For the first time since the siege began, government-run TV and the state news agency aired images of ravaged streets in the city, strewn with debris, damaged vehicles and makeshift barricades set up by protesters. One image showed a yellow taxi with a dead man in the driver's seat and bloodstains on the door. A tank cleared away a large cement barrier and a bus with shattered windows.

There were no reports of protests in the city during the day Friday — a contrast to previous weeks when hundreds of thousands in the city participated in the biggest marches in the country.

A citizen journalist from Hama working with Avaaz, an online global activist group with a network of activists inside Syria, told AP that people were now too afraid to go to the mosques, which were being targeted by the military.

The man who identified himself as Sami described the humanitarian situation as "catastrophic." Everything was closed, including bakeries and pharmacies, he said.

"There are sick people, people with diabetes who have run out of insulin ... the food has spoiled because there's no electricity," he said. "You cannot imagine how tired and terrified people are," he said.

Hama has seen government crackdowns before. 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.

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