Syrian Military Attacks Protesters in Hama

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A giant Syrian flag is held by the crowd during a protest against President Bashar Assad in the city center of Hama on July 29, 2011

Updated: Aug. 1, 2011, at 8:15 a.m. E.T.

Once again, it seems an Assad is trying to make an example of the defiant, religiously conservative Syrian city of Hama. Some three decades after his father and predecessor Hafez Assad ruthlessly crushed an Islamist uprising in the city in 1982 — leaving at least 10,000 dead and imposing a fear of rebellion so formidable that it was only recently cracked — President Bashar Assad's tanks stormed into Hama at dawn on Sunday, July 31, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.

The Syrian army, which had been on the outskirts of Hama for about a month, also attacked the eastern towns of Deir ez-Zour and al-Boukamal, as well as Mouathamiya near Damascus, the capital, and the village of al-Harak in the southern province of Dara'a, where the uprising erupted in mid-March. Details continued to emerge throughout the day, but at least 100 people were killed by midafternoon on Sunday, activists say, and it's been reported that security forces shelled Hama on Monday, though there was no immediate word on casualties. The European Union increased its sanctions by imposing asset freezes and travel bans on five military and government officials.

The security forces tend to attack one renegade city at a time. Sunday's simultaneous offensives in several parts of the country marked a key departure, several activists say.

"Attacking them all at once would either mean that the regime will utilize more of the army and face defections ... or will not have enough troops to fully put down the demonstrations, which will only serve to agitate the demonstrators as more residents behold the regime's atrocities," says Ausama Monajed, a leading Syrian opposition member.

Hama, about 120 miles (200 km) north of Damascus, has always been a thorn in the regime's side. In recent months, it has emerged as a key center of anti-Assad dissent. It basically fell outside Damascus' control in early June, when security forces withdrew to its perimeter after killing more than 60 people in a day. Residents have set up makeshift checkpoints and barricades in their neighborhoods in a bid to prevent the military and its gangs of armed thugs, or shabiha, from re-entering, although security forces have conducted nighttime raids.

The timing of the ferocious offensive — just a day before the start of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan — was also hugely symbolic. Although the period is traditionally one of reflection, prayer, feasting and family, Syrian activists expect an escalation in protests during Ramadan, as more people pay daily visits to mosques, which have served as launching pads for weekly demonstrations after Friday-afternoon prayers. Numerous activists say they expect every day during Ramadan to be like Friday, increasing pressure on the regime and its security forces.

Wissam Tarif, executive director of the rights group Insan, says Sunday's events suggest the regime is panicked. "It's a fear of Ramadan," he tells TIME from Beirut. "Assad lost Hama for a month. Hama announced itself to be a liberated city. If it continued to be a liberated city in Ramadan, then they would lose Deir ez-Zour next, and then Damascus, starting in its suburbs. That's something which makes them panicked," he says.

The death toll in Hama continued to spiral throughout the day. If Assad's show of force was intended to cow the city's residents, it wasn't working, according to Omar al-Habbal, a 57-year-old Hama resident and member of the Local Coordination Committees, a leading activist group. "People would see a tank advancing toward them, and they'd stand their ground, thousands of them," he tells TIME by phone from the besieged city. Bursts of intense gunfire can be heard during the interview. "The tank would be firing, and the people would be attacking it, with stones, with their hands, with sticks," he says.

Al-Habbal denies reports of military defections in the city. Three or four tank crews claimed to have switched sides, he says, "but it turned out to be a ploy." The "thousands" surrounding the tanks — two of which reportedly entered from the north and two from the south — started celebrating, al-Habbal says. "They were chanting 'The people and the army are one' and 'This is a great victory.' It was a trick so that [the tanks] could move deeper into the town. They started firing on the citizens."

"I haven't heard that. It is possible," says Monajed, the leading Syrian dissident, "but it conflicts with other reports of deliberations between Hama elders and the army to end the incursion in the section where the army had defected, in around a quarter or a third of the city."

Syria's state news agency said Sunday that "two law-enforcement members were martyred by armed groups in Hama who set police stations on fire, vandalized public and private properties, set roadblocks and barricades and burned tires at the entrance of the city and in its streets."

Amateur videos posted online show bloody, presumably dead individuals in civilian garb. In one video, captured from a high vantage point that provides a panning shot of the city, plumes of thick black smoke can be seen rising above Hama, as faint cries of "Allahu akbar" ring out. Residents were burning tires, al-Habbal says, in a bid to block the advance of tanks and to communicate with other parts of the city: "Whenever we feel or see a threat, we set fire to the tires." Just before noon local time, he says, "There's been intense, indiscriminate fire for the past hour or so. I counted at least 50 shells falling on the city in that period — I don't know where. Listen, the shelling is starting up again."