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.
Although there has been a near-total communications blackout in Hama, witnesses have painted a grim picture of life in the city. "People are being slaughtered like sheep while walking in the street," a resident said Thursday, speaking by phone on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
There were also fears of an intensified assault on a second city, the oil center of Deir el-Zour in the east, where tanks have been deployed at entrances since earlier this week. Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the London-based Observatory for Human Rights in Syria, said a quarter of the city's population of 600,000 have fled recently.
Friday has become the main day for protests in Syria, despite the near-certainty that tanks and snipers will respond with deadly force. Protests on Friday spread from the capital, Damascus, to the southern province of Daraa, the central city of Homs and in Qamishli, near the Turkish border. Some 20,000 people protested in Deir el-Zour, lower than the hundreds of thousands of previous weeks, likely due to the flight of a large part of the population.
"Hama, we are with you until death," a crowd marching through Damascus' central neighborhood of Midan shouted, clapping their hands as they chanted, "We don't want you Bashar" and "Bashar Leave," according to amateur videos from Friday posted on line by activists.
In another district of the capital, Qadam, protesters carried a banner reading, "Bashar is slaughtering the people and the international community is silent."
Security forces opened fire with live ammunition and tear gas in several cities, activists said. At least ten people were killed in the Damascus suburbs of Arbeen, Moaddamiya and Dumeir and three others in Homs, according to the London-based Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, a group that tracks protests.
One man who had been arrested earlier was found dead outside his home in the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun with torture marks on his body, the Observatory said.
Activists also said about 50 people were wounded in Friday's protests.
State-run TV said reported that two policemen were killed and 8 wounded when they were ambushed in the northern town of Maarat al-Numan.
The uprising, now in its fifth month, has proved remarkably resilient, continuing daily and even expanding despite a bloody crackdown that has killed at least 1,700 people. But protesters have so far failed to mobilize the middle class and Muslim Sunni elite to form a real threat to Assad's minority Alawite rule. Organizers had hoped to garner the increased religious fervor of Ramadan to give the protests a further boost. But so far that has yet to materialize. Since the start of Ramadan on Monday, many anti-government protesters were choosing instead to stage nightly protests, usually numbering in the thousands, following special Ramadan nighttime prayers.
Assad has largely brushed off international pressure on his regime.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Thursday he has warned Syria's leader that he will face a "sad fate" if he fails to introduce reforms in his country and open a peaceful dialogue with the opposition.
The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, returned to Damascus on Friday after several days in Washington holding confirmation hearings at Congress and meeting with President Barack Obama. Some lawmakers had urged the administration to recall Ford permanently as a further show of displeasure with the Assad regime. Italy this week recalled its ambassador and urged others to do the same.