Syrian forces shelled Hama with tanks and artillery for a third day as European countries pushed for a United Nations resolution condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s latest crackdown.
The army assault on the city of 800,000 drew protesters into the streets of Damascus and elsewhere in the country late yesterday and overnight into the second day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said by telephone from the capital.
At least 19 people were killed yesterday in the suburbs of Damascus and Hama, and in Bukamal, Idlib and Homs, said Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights. Security forces have killed at least 164 in the past three days, most of them in Hama, the country’s fourth-biggest city, where tanks shelled residential areas, including mosques, the activists said.
The UN Security Council is meeting in New York to discuss a revised draft resolution that was submitted by Britain, France, Germany and Portugal to condemn the violence. The crackdown is the bloodiest since the Syrian uprising began in mid-March following protests across the Arab world that ousted the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. The rallies have left Assad entrenched, while a rebellion in Libya has yet to dislodge Muammar Qaddafi.
The assault came as opposition forces vowed to step up their campaign against Assad during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and prayer. Family and community groups typically gather for evening meals during the month to break their fasts, and more people attend special services at mosques.
Armed groups in Hama began targeting government buildings with machine-gun fire and used Molotov cocktails to set them ablaze yesterday, the state-run SANA news agency said today, citing an unidentified official. They attacked a military conscription center and stole identification cards and uniforms, possibly to pose as soldiers while carrying out criminal acts, SANA reported.
More than 2,100 protesters have been killed in Syria since March, according to Merhi and Qurabi. More than 500 members of the security forces have been killed, Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad said in an interview with India’s News X channel.
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.
“There are extremist religious groups that exercise violence and terrorism,” Mekdad told News X. “There is no revolution.”
The attack on Hama, accounting for most the deaths in the past three days, has prompted renewed calls for global action. Amnesty International said the ongoing slaughter should be referred to the International Criminal Court, which investigates charges of genocide.
Hama was the site of a 1982 uprising that was crushed by Assad’s father, leaving about 10,000 people dead, according to Human Rights Watch. Estimates by groups including the New York- based International Center for Transitional Justice put the death toll at about 20,000.
The city has been mainly under the control of protesters for the past month. The government has restricted media access and banned most foreign journalists since the onset of the revolt.
“After failing the people of Hama nearly 30 years ago, the international community must take action to give Syria’s citizens -- and the broader Arab public -- reason to believe in the possibility of justice,” Habib Nassar, a director at the International Center for Transitional Justice, said by e-mail.
The U.S. backs the proposed Security Council resolution, said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN. “We want to understand why others wouldn’t do the same, particularly in light of what has transpired over the last few days,” she said.
Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, indicated that agreement on the revised draft resolution is unlikely to be quick, saying that the changes were minor.
“It is not a new text,” he said as he arrived at the UN. “I was hoping for a new text. This is the old text.”
India’s UN ambassador, Hardeep Singh Puri, said that while his government wants to see the Security Council take a position on the violence in Syria, “just how it will pronounce itself, in what way and with what degree of emphasis requires some discussion.”
China’s Foreign Ministry today reiterated remarks it made July 14, stating that any Security Council action must “help alleviate tension” and “maintain peace and stability in the Middle East.” One of the pillars of China’s foreign policy is non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations, a stance it evokes when vetoing UN resolutions or complaining about international criticism of its own actions in areas such as Tibet or Xinjiang.
The European Union approved a fourth set of sanctions against Syria yesterday. Italy recalled its ambassador to Syria over the government’s “horrible repression,” the Foreign Ministry in Rome said today in an e-mailed statement.
U.S. leaders have held back from explicitly saying that Assad must go. The government is considering additional oil and gas sanctions on top of the restrictions imposed on senior Syrian officials in May.
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