Syrian Tanks Move in on City as Thousands Mourn Protesters’ Deaths (New York Times)
(New York Times) CAIRO — Syrian tanks took up positions outside the city of Hama on Saturday, where tens of thousands of people took to the streets to mourn the deaths of at least 65 protesters gunned down by security forces there the day before.
The government’s violent crackdown against a three-month-old popular uprising continued, with helicopter gunships killing 10 people in a neighboring province and residents of Hama bracing for a military assault that would be the first on the city since the government bombed it in 1982, killing at least 10,000 people.
With memories of that massacre still vivid, Hama had been slow to join the uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
But on Friday, protesters poured out of mosques and marched in record numbers toward the city’s main square, said a 27-year-old resident who gave his name as Hassan, many carrying roses to give to security forces. Before they reached the square, Al Aasy, security forces opened fire.
“They didn’t warn us with speakers or fire tear gas at us,” Hassan said. “They began shooting directly at us. They wanted to kill all of us, not frighten us back to our homes.”
As the gunshots rang out, clouds of tear gas filled the streets and throngs of protesters scrambled for cover. A few stood their ground and hurled stones at attacking security forces, according to YouTube videos provided by the Local Coordinating Committees in Syria, an activist group documenting the protest movement and the crackdown.
“God is great!” protesters shouted as they pulled one man, shot in the head, into a blood-soaked alley, the constant rattle of gunfire sounding behind them.
So many were treated for gunshot wounds at local hospitals that blood supplies ran low, residents said. Throughout the night, loudspeakers on mosques normally used for calls to prayer urged people to donate blood.
Activists warned that the number of fatalities was likely to rise as bodies were identified. Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said doctors at three hospitals had reported a total of 80 deaths.
On Saturday, funeral processions drew as many as 100,000 mourners into the streets, said Razan Zeitouneh, an activist. That pattern — protest, crackdown, mourning and protest — has been repeated hundreds of times across the Middle East since a season of revolution dawned six months ago in Tunisia, reshaping the region’s political order.
The funerals were “like a protest,” said Abu Abdo, a resident reached by telephone. Security forces were absent from the town and both the police station and the local headquarters of the governing Baath Party were empty, he said. Residents declared a general strike and barricaded the streets out of town with garbage bins, bracing for whatever the government had in store.
“We will continue to protest,” he said. “No more fears.”
By sunset though, dozens of tanks had massed at the city’s southern entrance, said activists from the Coordinating Committees.
The gathering forces have a special, chilling resonance in Hama. In 1982, President Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, responded to another popular uprising there with a bombardment that leveled much of the town and killed at least 10,000 people.
The name Hama became a warning, seared into the national consciousness as proof of how far the government was willing to go to crush dissent.
Residents were wary of risking a reprise, and protests in Hama have been scattered and slow to gather momentum. But the number of those protesting appears to have swelled recently, with far more taking to the streets on Friday than ever before.
Compared with 1982, the current crackdown has produced far fewer casualties. Still, since the uprising began in mid-March, activists say that more than 1,000 people have been killed, and that the brutality appears to increase week by week as government security forces move from city to city.
“Every week they choose a city to take revenge on,” Ms. Zeitouneh said. “It is Hama’s turn.”
In neighboring Idlib Province on Saturday, Syrian forces used helicopter gunships for the first time. They bombarded the village of Jisr al-Shughour for more than half an hour, killing 10 people and sending dozens of families fleeing to Turkey, activists said.
They also said 50 people were arrested in the coastal city of Baniyas.
In the protests on Friday, the deaths were not confined to Hama. Activists said seven people were killed in Al Rastan; one in Damascus; two in the village of Has in Idlib; two children, ages 13 and 16, in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour; and two children in Dara’a, the southern town that gave birth to the uprising.
Internet service slowly returned to much of Syria on Saturday but remained shut off in Hama, Idlib and Dara’a. The blackout on Friday, which had disabled two-thirds of the country’s Web connections, seemed aimed at strangling the flow of YouTube videos and Twitter and Facebook posts that have fed the revolt. Phone service, water and electricity have also been severely disrupted in many parts of the country, activists said.
The Internet’s partial return allowed activists to compare notes and tally the death toll from protests the previous day, which organizers on Facebook dedicated to the memory of the children killed in the crackdown.
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