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Syrian forces intensify assault on protest epicenter

BEIRUT — Syrian forces launched a continued assault on the flash point city of Hama on Monday, extending their effort to crush a 4-month-old rebellion into the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan despite growing world condemnation.

At least nine people were killed Monday, according to the human rights group Insan, four of them in Hama. The other five were killed in the eastern towns of Deir el-Zour and Abu Kamal, which also have been targeted by the regime in its offensive to suppress the uprising and by the opposition to escalate antigovernment demonstrations during Ramadan.

But the toll in Hama was expected to rise because residents reported a sudden and intense increase in the scale of bombardments against the city Monday night, with shells crashing into residential neighborhoods, a hospital and the courthouse.

Activist Saleh Hamawi, reached by telephone, said it was impossible to know exactly what was happening because of the darkness and the intensity of the fire. "The bombing is very big, and they are using some bombs that are bigger than tanks," he said, adding that he knew of several casualties but could not specify a number.

The offensive suggests that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has not been swayed by sensitivities surrounding deaths in the holy month, during which observant Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset. In the attack Sunday, 102 people died, 76 of them in Hama, Insan reported.

Troops did not, however, penetrate the center of the city, which has effectively been under the control of protesters since early June, turning Hama into a beacon of hope for other areas in the country struggling to stage anti-government demonstrations in the face of harsh suppression. Hama is also considered uniquely sensitive because it is the site of an infamous massacre in 1982 in which at least 10,000 people died when Assad's father, Hafez, crushed an uprising there.

Activist Omar Habbal, also contacted by telephone, said unarmed residents were continuing to stand at barricades erected to keep troops out and would remain there despite the renewed bombardments.

"They are showing the military that we will defend our city to the last child," he said. "We will never give up, and they won't be able to enter the city."

The Obama administration said it was studying unspecified new sanctions and unilateral measures and reiterated its condemnation of the violence, with State Department spokesman Mark Toner calling the attacks "despicable and abhorrent." The European Union extended financial sanctions and travel bans to five additional members of the Assad regime but rejected the imposition of more forceful energy sanctions, saying they would also harm ordinary Syrians.

Elsewhere

Yemen: Government airstrikes killed at least 15 suspected al-Qaida-linked militants in southern Yemen on Monday, military official said.

West Bank: Israeli forces killed two Palestinians in a refugee camp Monday after raiding houses and being set upon by stone-throwing Palestinians.

Egypt: Soldiers clashed Monday with protesters encamped in Tahrir Square, tearing down tents used by the activists during a weeks-long sit-in.

Syrian forces intensify assault on protest epicenter 08/02/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 2, 2011 12:14am]

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