Syrian protesters demand end of Hama blockade

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Thousands of people staged overnight protests in cities across Syria on Wednesday and into Thursday morning demanding that a security blockade on the country’s fourth-largest city, Hama, be lifted.

Syrian troops armed with tanks have encircled Hama for a fifth consecutive day on Thursday, cutting off water and electricity supplies from most parts of the city.

More than 20 people have been killed by security forces in the city, prompting US calls for an immediate pullback, human rights activists have said.

Troops also wounded more than 80 people as they pushed through improvised roadblocks put up by residents after massive anti-government protests in the city of some 800,000 people, the National Organization for Human Rights said.

It said at least 22 people were killed on Tuesday, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said later on Wednesday that at least 23 had been killed in 24 hours.

“The wounded are being treated in two hospitals in Hama,” the National Organization’s chairman Ammar Qurabi told AFP in Nicosia, adding that troops had entered Al Hurani hospital.

London-based watchdog Amnesty International accused the authorities of committing crimes against humanity in its deadly crackdown on the unprecedented anti-government protests that have swept the country since mid-March.

Hama has a history of militancy. In 1982, the late Hafez Assad ordered his troops to crush a rebellion by Sunni fundamentalists, killing between 10,000 and 25,000 people, rights groups say.

Since security forces gunned down 48 protesters in the city on June 3, Hama has escaped the clutches of the regime, activists say. The next day, more than 100,000 mourners were reported to have taken part in their funerals.

A statement by Human Rights Watch said that security forces and pro-government fighters, known as “shabiha,” raided homes and set up checkpoints around Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city. The rights group said at least 16 people have been killed in the city since Monday.

“Hama is the latest city to fall victim to President Bashar Al Assad’s security forces despite his promises that his government would tolerate peaceful protests,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Security forces have responded to protest with the brutality that’s become familiar over the past several months.”

According to the Syrian Observatory, the body of one of those killed in Tuesday’s assault was dumped in the Orontes (Assi) river in Hama, which is famous for its ancient watermills.

Residents, meanwhile, have “mobilized. They’re prepared to die to defend the city if need be rather than allow the army to enter,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory.

Another activist insisted that Hama, where as many as 500,000 people took to the streets for a demonstration last Friday against Assad’s regime, was putting up a “100 percent peaceful” resistance.

But Damascus said that its troops had suffered casualties at the hands of armed groups in the city.

“The security forces, which intervened to restore order in Hama where there have been acts of sabotage... were attacked with Molotov cocktails by armed groups,” the official SANA news agency said.

“One security force member was killed and 13 wounded in the clashes. Some of the gunmen were killed and others wounded.”

The US State Department said it too had no evidence that the protests had been anything but peaceful and called on the Syrian government to withdraw its troops from Hama.

“We urge the government of Syria to immediately halt its intimidation and arrest campaign, to pull its security forces back from Hama and other cities, and to allow Syrians to express their opinions freely,” it said.

“The government of Syria claims that it’s interested in dialogue at the same time that it is attacking and massing forces in Hama, where demonstrations have been nothing but peaceful.”

Human rights groups say that more than 1,300 civilians have been killed and thousands more arrested since the protests started nearly four month ago.

(Mustapha Ajbaili, Night Editor of Al Arabiya English, can be reached at: Mustapha.ajbaili@mbc.net)