Syrian tanks 'shell' restive city of Hama

Activists report blasts in besieged city, as UN Security Council agrees "in principle" on critical statement.

    Fresh explosions have erupted in the Syrian city of Hama as President Bashar al-Assad's government showed no signs of halting the intense military assault against an uprising now in its fifth month, activists said.

    Residents said on Wednesday that Syrian tanks had occupied the main Orontes Square in central Hama, the venue of some of the largest demonstrations against Assad's rule during the uprising.

    "The regime is using the media focus on the Hosni Mubarak trial to finish off Hama," one of the residents told the Reuters news agency by satellite phone from the city, referring to the televised trial of the former Egyptian president.

    The resident added that the shelling concentrated on al-Hader district, large parts of which were was razed during a 1982 military assault on Hama that killed thousands.

    Details on the blasts heard early on Wednesday were unclear, as phone lines to Hama appeared to have been cut, making it impossible to confirm events on the ground, Al Jazeera's Rula Amin said from neighbouring Lebanon. Our correspondent also said residents were reporting renewed shelling in parts of the city.

    "Early this morning people heard the sound of bombs," Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

    "There are some 100 tanks and troop carriers on the highway leading to the central city of Hama and about 200 tanks around the eastern city of Deir ez-Zoor," he said.

    The observatory relies on a network of sources on the ground throughout Syria.

    Syrian troops have tightened their siege on Hama since Sunday, sending residents fleeing for their lives.

    The death toll since Sunday has reached about 100 people, but the exact figure was difficult to verify, according to activists.

    Syrian state news agency SANA has said ambiguously that parliament will meet in an extraordinary session on Sunday to discuss "issues concerning the nation and its citizens".

    International condemnation

    The operation has drawn a fresh wave of international condemnation against a regime defying the growing calls to end its crackdown on anti-government protesters.

    Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Arinc Bulent has said that an attack by Syrian security forces on the city of Hama is an "atrocity" and a government that sanctioned such brutality could not be called a "friend".

    Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, met US-based Syrian democracy activists on Tuesday as the Obama administration weighed new sanctions on Syria.

    US congressional calls also mounted for action against Assad's regime.

    Italy on Tuesday recalled its ambassador to Syria "in the face of the horrible repression against the civil population" by the government, which launched a new push against protesters as the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan began on Monday.

    It was the first European Union country to pull its ambassador, and the measure came a day after the EU tightened sanctions on Syria.

    The mounting international outcry has had no apparent effect so far in Syria, an autocratic country that relies on Iran as its main ally in the region.

    About 1,700 civilians have been killed since the largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime began, according to tallies by activists.

    Syria has banned independent media coverage and has stopped most foreign journalists from entering the country, preventing independent assessments of the events.

    Agreement 'in principle'

    At the UN, world leaders on Wednesday came to a preliminary accord on how to deal with Syria's repression of protesters after three days of discussions.

    "The UN Security Council has reached an agreement in principle on a 'Presidential Statement', which is weaker than a resolution," Al Jazeera's Kristen Saloomey, reporting from the UN, said. "Countries are now referring the draft to their capitals for final approval, and if there are no objections, it will be adopted by consensus at 3pm [local time]."

    "Western diplomats don't think it's productive at all to go easy on the Assad regime," our correspondent said earlier on Wednesday. "The Russians, pressing for a balanced approach, point out that 350 Syrian security people have been killed in the violence."

    Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin had called the new text circulated by European nations as "detrimental" to efforts "to do everything possible to pull away from the brink of civil war where Syria is finding itself, unfortunately and tragically".

    India's UN Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, who currently presides over the 15-nation council, said earlier that two unnamed council members were opposed to a resolution while a third member, Lebanon, was against any statement criticising Syria. The two opposing members were known to be Russia and China.

    However, Russia had indicated that it would not oppose a council resolution condemning the violence.

    Sergei Vershinin, chief of the foreign ministry's Middle East and North Africa department, told Russian news agencies that Russia is "not categorically against'' adopting a new UN resolution on Syria but said such a resolution should not impose sanctions because that would only escalate the conflict.

    The 15-nation council has been under mounting international pressure to take a stand on violence in Syria, yet some diplomats said they would seek to agree on a less formal statement, with no warning of UN action.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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