BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian security forces launched a ferocious assault Sunday on defiant cities and towns, killing at least 70 people as the regime raced to crush dissent ahead of Ramadan.
The violence drew widespread international condemnation, with President Barack Obama calling the reports "horrifying." He said President Bashar Assad is "completely incapable and unwilling" to respond to the legitimate grievances of the Syrian people.
Estimates of the death toll, which were impossible to verify, ranged from around 75 to nearly 140 on a day when the attacks began before dawn and witnesses said they were too frightened to collect corpses from the streets.
The worst carnage was in Hama in central Syria, the scene of a 1982 massacre by Assad's late father and a city with a history of defiance against 40 years of Assad family rule.
Ramadan, which begins today, will present a critical test for the government, which has unleashed deadly firepower since March but still has not been able to put down the revolt.
Daily demonstrations are expected to surge during the holy month, when crowds gather in mosques each evening after the dawn-to-dusk fast.
Though the violence has so far failed to blunt the protests, the Syrian government appears to be hoping it can frighten people from taking to the streets during Ramadan.
The protesters are promising to persevere.
Syria has banned most foreign media and restricted coverage, making it difficult to confirm events on the ground. But interviews with witnesses, protesters and activists painted a grim picture Sunday of indiscriminate shelling and sniper fire in Hama as residents fought back by erecting barricades and throwing firebombs at their assailants.
It appeared the regime was making an example of Hama, a religiously conservative city of 800,000 about 130 miles north of the capital, Damascus. The city has largely fallen out of government control since June as residents turned on the regime.
Deaths also were reported in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour and al-Hirak village in the southern province of Daraa.
The Local Coordination Committees, which helps organize protests, urged people to take to the streets and start a general strike to protest the killings.
In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the attacks were "all the more shocking" on the eve of Ramadan and appeared to be part of a coordinated effort to deter Syrians from protesting during the holy month.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called for an end to the violence and reminded Syrian authorities they are accountable for all violence against civilians.
Germany's U.N. Mission said it has asked for a Security Council meeting on Syria and expects consultations to be held today.
More than 1,600 civilians have been killed in the crackdown on the largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime since the uprising began. Most were killed in shootings by security forces at anti-government rallies.