Syrian tanks pull back from Hama as security tightens

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 03, 2011 6:09 PM
Syrian tanks pull back from Hama as security tightens

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN, Jul (Reuters) - Syrian tanks deployed at the entrances to the city of Hama on Sunday but later pulled back, residents said, two days after it saw the largest protest against President Bashar al-Assad since an uprising began three months ago.

Tanks and armoured vehicles headed north after moving close to the city of 650,000 people. Tens of people were earlier arrested in neighbourhoods on the edges of Hama and secret police patrols were seen in the city, they said.

"The regime is using scare tactics, but the people of Hama are not bowing," one of the residents said, adding that tens of thousands of people assembled for a night rally at the main square on Sunday, despite electricity cuts designed to hamper protests.

The security presence had lessened in Hama since forces killed at least 60 protesters in the city a month ago, in one of the bloodiest days of the uprising against Assad.

Demonstrations have grown in numbers since, witnesses said, with at least 150,000 people assembling at a main square on Friday in a rally demanding the removal of Assad, whose father, the late Hafez al-Assad sent troops to the city in the 1982 to crush an Islamist led uprising. That attack killed up to 30,000 people.

Another resident, a shop owner who gave his name as Kamel, said security forces and gunmen loyal to Assad, known as 'shabbiha', fired rifles randomly early on Sunday in Hama's Mashaa district. He added that arrests concentrated on the areas around the football stadium and in Sabounia district.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, president of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed that tanks had withdrawn, saying any military assault on the city, scene of the bloodiest episode in Syria's modern history, could "spur Syrians to take to the streets across the country en mass and result in total international isolation of the regime."

"People in the hundreds of thousands protested peacefully in Hama on Friday. The authorities do not have an excuse to say Hama is full of armed terrorist groups," Abdelrahman told Reuters.

He was referring to statements by the authorities that military assaults on numerous cities, towns and villages in the last two months were in pursuit of Islamist and foreign backed gunmen terrorising the civilian population.

The 1982 assault on Hama, 210 km (130 miles) north of Damascus, was carried out by troops mostly from Syria's Alawite minority commanded by Hafez al-Assad's brother.

Bashar Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, has ruled the majority Sunni country since succeeding his father in 2000. He sacked the governor of Hama province, Ahmad Khaled Abdulaziz, on Saturday.

The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Assad and his top officials in response to the brutal crackdown, in which at least 1,300 civilians have been killed according to rights groups.

Neighbouring Turkey has warned Assad against repeating "another Hama," in reference to the 1982 massacre.

In Zurich, Swiss news agency SDA reported on Sunday that Switzerland has blocked Syrian assets worth 27 million Swiss francs ($32 million).

Citing a Swiss newspaper report that the Swiss Secretariat for Economics (SECO) confirmed, the news agency said SECO declined to comment on whether the assets of President Bashar al-Assad had been frozen. SECO could not immediately be reached by Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Katie Reid)