Syrian tanks and troops surrounded the rebellious city of Hama on Sunday, apparently poised for an assault to crush long-festering opposition to the regime of President Bashar Assad.
After initially remaining quiet, protests have mushroomed over the few last weeks in Hama, a city loaded with political symbolism for both supporters and opponents of the government. Assad’s late father and predecessor launched a brutal and infamous assault on the city in 1982 to crush an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, leaving thousands dead.
On Saturday, Assad fired the provincial governor of Hama amid rumors that the governor had refused to allow security forces to fire on protesters during a large demonstration a day earlier. By Sunday, Assad’s forces had deployed as many as 100 tanks around the city, establishing checkpoints and blocking roads in an apparent attempt to restrict movement in and out of the city of 700,000.
“Tanks have closed off the main entrances to the city and phone networks have been cut,” said one resident who managed to leave Sunday but asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
In the last few months Syrian authorities have often cut phone lines to areas before full-blown offensives.
A month ago, an assault by security forces on protesters left at least 60 dead in Hama in one of the bloodiest incidents in the uprising.
In nearby Homs province late Saturday, security forces deployed seven tanks in the town of Qusair, said Adel Othman, one of the members of the Local Coordination Committee, a forum used by anti-regime protesters to organize demonstrations and disseminate news to journalists.
Othman said protesters took to the streets Saturday in Qusair, only to be chased back by the military forces.
“People left their houses and just ran away to the forest in order to hide,” he said. “The situation is terrible. Several houses were raided, and the army is widely deployed around the area.”
In the northern city of Idlib, security forces broke into homes Saturday night, looting and burning them as they ravaged the town, activists said.
More than 10,000 Syrians around Idlib have fled to refugee camps in Turkey and along the border just inside Syria to escape the security forces’ violence.
In Damascus, the Syrian capital, political activists close to the regime, including some from tolerated opposition groups, gathered for a second time in a week to discuss reforms that could allow a transition to a more democratic state in response to the months-long uprising against Assad’s rule.
At the conference, described by some critics as an attempt to sugarcoat the ongoing crackdown, activists called on the police to protect peaceful protesters and demanded that journalists be allowed to freely cover events in Syria.
“Syria is facing a crisis, a crisis with many different angles,” Mohammad Habash, one of the organizers, said of ending the conflict in his opening speech. “We are going to make 100 steps, and in each step we will succeed.”
Activists reported that security forces opened fire on protesters late Sunday in the Hajar Aswad district of Damascus, killing two people and injuring dozens.
Hajjar is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi contributed to this report.