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Syria tightens siege on city of Hama

Syria tightens siege on city of Hama

August 3rd, 2011 in News

BEIRUT (AP) - Syrian troops tightened their siege on the city of Hama on Tuesday, sending residents fleeing for their lives and drawing a fresh wave of international condemnation against a regime defying the growing calls to end its crackdown on anti-government protesters.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with U.S.-based Syrian democracy activists as the Obama administration weighed new sanctions on Syria. Congressional calls also mounted for action against President Bashar Assad's regime, as the death toll from two days of military assaults on civilians Sunday and Monday neared 100.

Italy 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 holy month of Ramadan began 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 a main ally in the region.

The top U.S. military officer said Washington wants to pressure the Syrian regime. But he added there was no immediate prospect of a Libya-style military intervention.

"There's no indication whatsoever that the Americans, that we would get involved directly with respect to this," Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said Tuesday.

The British Foreign Office said it shares Italy's "strong concerns about the situation in Syria" but is not recalling its ambassador.

"In the absence of an end to the senseless violence and a genuine process of political reform, we will continue to pursue further EU sanctions," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement. Without change "President Assad and those around him will find themselves isolated internationally and discredited within Syria."

At U.N. headquarters in New York, the Security Council met behind closed doors Tuesday to discuss a revised European-drafted resolution backed by the U.S. that has been languishing since late May that would condemn Syria's attacks against civilians.

Russia softened its stance, indicating it would not oppose such a resolution. Last month, Russia and China had threatened to veto such a resolution, effectively blocking it.

But Sergei Vershinin, chief of the Foreign Ministry's Middle East and North Africa Department, told Russian news agencies Tuesday that such a resolution should not impose sanctions because that would only escalate the conflict.

Still there was no sign the Syrian regime was willing to back down.

There has been an intensified campaign since Sunday, apparently aimed at preventing protests from swelling during Ramadan, when Muslims throng mosques for special nightly prayers after breaking their daily, dawn-to-dusk fast. The gatherings could turn into large protests.

As expected, protests erupted Monday evening across the country, with hundreds turning out in cities including Homs, Latakia, the Damascus suburbs and the eastern city of Deir el-Zour.

There were scattered protests in Hama, but heavy shelling kept most people inside. Hama has been the target of the recent operation because it has emerged as an opposition stronghold.

The city has a history of defiance to the Assad family 40-year dynasty in Syria. In 1982, Assad's father, Hafez Assad, ordered the military to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement. The city was sealed off and bombs dropped from above smashed swaths of the city and killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people, rights groups say.

Hama-based activist Omar Hamawi told The Associated Press that troops advanced about 700 yards from the western entrance of the city overnight, taking up positions near homes and buildings in an area known as Kazo Square. He said the force consisted of eight tanks and several armored personnel carriers.

Hamawi, who spoke to the AP by telephone, said troops were also reinforced on the eastern side of the city around the Hama Central Prison, an overcrowded jail.

He said residents there saw smoke billowing from the prison overnight and heard sporadic gunfire from inside, leading some to believe the inmates were rioting. He added that it was impossible to know what was exactly going on in the prison or whether there were casualties inside the tightly controlled facility.

The activist also said that parts of Hama were hit Tuesday morning with heavy machine gun fire after sporadic shelling overnight. He said a shell hit a compound known as the Palace of Justice in the city center, causing a huge fire that burned much of the building, which is home to several courts.