Carnage in Syria as Assad seeks to crush opposition
Bodies littered the streets of Hama yesterday as the Syrian army launched major tank offensives across the country in a fresh attempt to crush the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
President Barack Obama said he was "appalled" by the raids and issued his most severe condemnation yet of Assad, saying he would continue efforts to "isolate" the president.
On one of the bloodiest days of retribution since protests erupted in March, up to 95 people were killed in Hama alone and 136 nationwide.
For nearly a month the security forces had laid siege to Hama, sealing off access roads into the central Syrian city in an attempt to isolate its fractious inhabitants from the rest of the country.
But with perhaps half of the city's 700,000-strong population regularly taking to the streets to demand the regime's downfall, the security forces chose to resort once more to bloodshed.
Just before dawn, tanks and armoured vehicles crossed the Orontes River and advanced into the centre of the city, leaving crushed barricades and corpses in their wake.
As day broke, the city's skyline seemed almost entirely shrouded with smoke. Mosque loudspeakers calling the faithful to prayer and urging them to remain steadfast were almost drowned out by the relentless cacophony of gunfire and exploding tank shells.
"It is a massacre," said one resident. "We don't know how many are dead because there are so many bodies on the streets that we cannot collect because it is so dangerous."
But in a city still scarred by the memories of 1982, when some 20,000 people were killed during the brutal suppression of an Islamist uprising against Mr Assad's father and predecessor, the mood was still one of overwhelming defiance.
Some attacked the advancing tanks with firebombs, stones and even sticks. Others crept out onto rooftops and balconies to film the shooting on their mobile phones, braving the snipers who frequently target amateur cameramen.
There were scenes of pandemonium at the city's Badr hospital. Amateur video footage showed overwhelmed doctors performing simultaneous operations.
Shrouded in white sheets, the dead had been lain out on bloodstained floors. Some of the corpses were missing most of their heads -- or large chunks from their torsos -- injuries so grotesque they can only have been caused by anti-aircraft guns or weapons of similar calibre.
The carnage was played out on a smaller scale elsewhere. At least 19 protesters were reported to have been killed in Deir Ezzor, most of whom were shot by snipers. Further deaths were reported in cities in the east and south of the country. The ferocity of the military campaign suggested the regime was intent on sending a chilling message to the protest movement ahead of Ramadan, which starts today.
The government fears the holy month could see even larger demonstrations than in the past as worshippers gather in mosques.
"Assad is running scared," one Syrian opposition activist said. "No matter what he's done, no matter how brutal he has been, people keep coming on to the streets in bigger and bigger numbers.
"Today has been all about intimidation, but it will not work. Time is running out for the regime, and they know it."
The scale and timing of yesterday's military operations brought swift international condemnation.
Mr Obama said the Syrian president was "completely incapable and unwilling" to respond to the "legitimate grievances" of the Syrian people. (© Daily Telegraph, London)