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Syrian Army Presses Assault on Hama as 140 Deaths Spark Wave of Protests

Syria’s army pressed its crackdown on Hama as thousands took to the streets of Damascus and other cities to protest the killing of more than 140 people by President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces.

On the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, artillery pounded parts of Hama, destroying four buildings, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Damascus-based Arab Organization for Human Rights, said in a telephone interview. The attack on Hama, one of the bloodiest episodes in Syria’s four-month uprising, will be discussed at the United Nations Security Council today, the U.K. said, with British Foreign Secretary William Hague pledging to seek a resolution condemning the killings.

The two-day offensive has left 116 dead in Hama, in west- central Syria, as well as 25 in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour and six in Bukamal, Merhi said. Syrian state television said an army colonel and two other soldiers were killed by armed men in Deir al-Zour.

The assault came as Syria’s opposition forces vowed to step up their campaign against Assad during Ramadan. Family and community groups typically gather for evening meals during the month to break their fasts and more people attend special services at mosques. That may make it easier for opposition leaders to organize daily rallies along the lines of those held for the past four months after Friday prayers.

The government “has been very frightened by Ramadan’s onset,” Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, said in a telephone interview. “The unfolding crackdown is going to fuel people’s anger.”

‘With Our Blood’

Thousands of people demonstrated after evening prayers late yesterday on the streets of the capital, Damascus, and Aleppo, Homs and other Syrian cities. “With our blood, with our soul, we shall redeem you, O Hama,” the crowd shouted in unison in Damascus, as televised by Al Arabiya.

At least 2,000 protesters have been killed since the demonstrations began in mid-March, inspired by revolts that overthrew the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia, according to Merhi and Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.

The unrest poses the biggest challenge to Assad’s rule since he inherited power from his father, Hafez al-Assad, 11 years ago. Assad has blamed the protests on foreign-inspired plots, while conceding that some demonstrators have legitimate demands and pledging political changes.

‘More Force’

“Clearly the regime believes they have got to use more force and they have to get on top of this before it expands into more towns and gets beyond the capabilities of the security forces to be in all places at all times,” Landis said.

Syria has been a key opponent of U.S. and Israeli policy in the Middle East and a power broker in neighboring Lebanon. The U.S. and allied countries condemned the latest violence. They have criticized earlier attacks without taking any action beyond sanctions targeting government officials.

A European Union decision to adopt a fourth sanctions measure on Syria is “imminent,” European Commission spokesman Michael Mann told reporters in Brussels today.

There is no prospect of military intervention, Hague told BBC radio today.

China and Russia have led opposition to a UN Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s assault, while Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement today that the use of force against civilians is unacceptable and must end.

President Barack Obama said the U.S. will “increase our pressure on the Syrian regime, and work with others around the world to isolate the Assad government.”

Praise for Military

In a speech marking the anniversary of the Syrian army’s founding, Assad called the military a model of commitment to the nation’s causes and a defender of its rights, according to the state-run SANA news agency.

“This vicious attack won’t fare any better than the previous ones,” the Syrian president said. “Hardships make us more resilient, conspiracies make us stronger.”

The government last week approved laws that allow new political parties to exist alongside Assad’s Baath party, which has been in power since 1963, and the establishment of a commission to regulate parliamentary elections. The measures were dismissed by activists as cosmetic.

Hama was the site of a 1982 uprising that the current president’s father crushed, leaving about 10,000 people dead, according to Human Rights Watch. The city, Syria’s fourth- largest, has been mainly under the control of protesters for the past month, Merhi said. Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera showed columns of black smoke billowing from the city yesterday. Gunfire and people screaming could be heard.

To contact the reporter on this story: Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut, Lebanon, at mderhally@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Louis Meixler at lmeixler@bloomberg.net.

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