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Syria forces escalate attacks on protesters

The months-long standoff between Syria’s embattled government and a broad-based opposition movement escalated dramatically when security forces launched simultaneous military attacks in several major cities, instilling anger and fear in an already battered populace just ahead of the emotionally charged month of Ramadan.

Security forces opened fire with tanks and machine guns on opposition hot spots across the nation Sunday, including areas near the southern city of Dara, where the uprising began 4 1/2 months ago, and in the far eastern city of Dair Alzour.

But the most intense attacks centered on Hama, the site of a massive 1982 massacre by President Bashar Assad’s father that continues to cast a dark shadow over Syria. At least 50 of the 70 deaths reported by activists Sunday took place in Hama, and the count was expected to rise.

The latest offensive bore ominous sectarian overtones. Assad’s security forces, dominated by his fellow minority Shiite Alawites, repeatedly attacked Sunni mosque minarets, according to witnesses and video footage. The timing of the attack, on the eve of the Muslim holy month of dawn-to-dusk fasting and religious contemplation, was sure to inflame the passions as well as fears of the largely pious rural and provincial Sunnis leading the uprising.

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Even more than in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia or Bahrain — other Arab countries undergoing political transformation — the unrest in Syria carries potentially enormous geopolitical significance, and a change in government in Damascus could have great repercussions. Syria is a key anti-American player along with Iran and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, but, as a nation, it is also a volatile sectarian and ethnic patchwork. Syria’s chaos has raised alarms in nations at its borders, including Israel, Turkey and Lebanon.

Syrian state-controlled media continued to insist unspecified “armed gangs” were behind the violence, which prompted outrage from Western officials. In an unusually vociferous criticism, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Damascus described the day’s violence as “full-on warfare by the Syrian government against its own people” and “a last act of utter desperation” by the regime.

“There’s one big armed gang in Syria and its name is the Syrian government,” press attache J.J. Harder told the BBC.

President Obama also issued a stern statement Sunday, saying he was “appalled by the Syrian government’s use of violence and brutality against its own people.”

“The reports out of Hama are horrifying and demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime,” the president said. “Once again, President Assad has shown that he is completely incapable and unwilling to respond to the legitimate grievances of the Syrian people. His use of torture, corruption and terror puts him on the wrong side of history and his people.”

Hama has for weeks been under the de facto control of protesters who have set up roadblocks to prevent security forces and pro-regime shabiha militiamen from terrorizing their neighborhoods. Syrian activist and Hama resident Omar Habbal told The Times that protesters may have provoked security forces on Saturday by moving the checkpoints half a mile farther southwest, effectively cutting off a key road connecting Hama to the city of Homs to the south.

“This made them crazy they can’t pass to the west,” he said.

The subsequent violence underscored the determination of the Assad government and its Alawite loyalists to retain absolute control despite the demands of a vast opposition movement.

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The attack on Hama came from four directions beginning at dawn, Habbal and others said. Thousands poured into the streets to defend the city. Some members of the military turned back, while others continued to attack, pummeling neighborhoods with tank shells for hours.

“We have lost many friends,” said Habbal. “But they were not able to enter. Hundreds of thousands are chasing them, fighting with stones, barricades, burning old tires.”

Video footage posted to the Internet showed young men cowering amid intense barrages of automatic weapons fire and images of bodies with gunshot wounds. Enraged crowds carried the dead. “With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice for the martyr!” they roared.

There were unconfirmed reports of scores of army defections; unverified video footage showed small groups of soldiers on tanks embraced by jovial activists in Hama, suggesting cracks within the security apparatus. None of the accounts could be independently verified by international journalists, who are not allowed to enter Syria.

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By nightfall, a Hama resident said, the violence had ended, but many expect it to resume as Ramadan gets underway.

“They’re trying to scare people off, but me and my family and my friends who are defending our homes with rocks against tanks, we are not scared of anything anymore,” declared a young man in Hama, who said he lost two close friends Sunday. “What’s the worst that’s going to happen to us?”

In 1982, the president’s late father, Hafez Assad, and now-exiled uncle, Rifaat Assad, all but flattened large sections of the mostly Sunni city of Hama and killed tens of thousands during an uprising.

Syrian security forces have besieged Hama for weeks. U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Ford and his French colleague, Eric Chevallier, provoked a diplomatic firestorm by visiting the city in early July, a trip that underscored the peaceful nature of a movement that Assad and his adjutants have described as an uprising by unspecified “armed groups” with extreme Islamist agendas.

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Assad’s father in 1982 also described the rebellion against his Baath Party rule as a revolt by Islamists.

Security forces Sunday also moved to stamp out protests in Homs, the country’s third-largest city, and Idlib, in the country’s northwest, as well as in restive suburbs of Damascus.

“The regime wanted to crush the demonstrations before Ramadan, so it’s playing its last card,” said a resident in Dair Alzour, near the Iraqi border. “That’s why they attacked us and the other governorates in such an ugly, inhumane manner. The city has witnessed a massacre today.”

While provoking fear, the government’s actions may only stoke tensions, pushing Syria close to civil war.

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According to one activist, one of the country’s major Bedouin tribes, the Odwan, who straddle Jordan and Syria, was prompted to turn against the regime after a Sunday attack, erupting in protest against Assad for the first time since the uprising. Activists also said the government arrested a tribal leader from the Dair Alzour area, prompting warnings that the well-armed tribe would also end its neutrality and turn its weapons on the regime.

Military forces loyal to Assad stormed the provincial capital, Dair Alzour, which has been in open revolt against the regime for weeks. Activists said security forces armed with truck-mounted machine guns fired into crowds of people chanting antigovernment slogans and into residential neighborhoods. Tanks fired on and destroyed a mosque minaret.

“There are a lot of snipers,” said a resident of Dair Alzour, who asked that his name not be published for fear of retribution. “They are on the rooftops of government buildings. People started chanting for the army’s support but they opened fire in a merciless manner.”

daragahi@latimes.com

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Sandels is a special correspondent.


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