Syrian Forces Attack Anti-Government Demonstrations

In a sharp escalation of violence in Syria, government troops Sunday moved into the central city of Hama, killing dozens, in a bid to regain control of a major hub of the country's opposition movement.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On this morning that we're learning about the debt ceiling deal, there is much other news around the world. In Syria, the government launched a major military operation yesterday against anti-government demonstrators. Human rights activists estimate that as many as 100 people were killed. President Obama said the attack showed, quote, "the true character of the Syrian regime."

NPR's Peter Kenyon has this report from Beirut.

PETER KENYON: Activists have said the Friday demonstrations of recent months would occur every night during Ramadan and the government launched what appeared to be a preemptive assault yesterday.

(Soundbite of shouting and gunfire)

KENYON: Amateur video said to be from the central city of Hama showed tanks on the outskirts and young protestors hunkered down behind makeshift barricades. Hama, scene of a government massacre in 1982, when at least 10,000 people were killed, has become a rallying point for the protestors, and Hama activist Omar Habbal said it seemed the government was determined to once against crush dissent there.

Mr. OMAR HABBAL (Activist): Before 5:30 we've seen some tanks moving close to the city, opening fire from their heavy guns to the civilian boys sitting on the barricades. A lot of people killed and wounded. The city came down screaming. All Hama people came to the streets with the stones, with woods to defend the city against this attack.

KENYON: By nightfall, Habbal said the tanks had not entered the city center and the reports he was getting suggesting that far from quelling the population, the military offensive had enraged Syrians from the central city of Homs north toward the border with Turkey.

Mr. HABBAL: It's crazy what they have done from Homs up to Turkish border. It's all boiling now and supporting Hama.

(Soundbite of gunshots and shouting)

KENYON: Despite government restrictions, activists posted videos purporting to show demonstrations and government attacks in a number of cities, including Deir El-Zour in eastern Syria and Daraa in the south, where the uprising began this spring. The videos could not be independently verified.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford angered the Syrian government when he and his French counterpart visited Hama a few weeks ago to meet with demonstrators. In Damascus, press attache J.J. Harder was blunt in a phone interview, saying that the efforts of Ford and others have refuted the government's claim that it's battling against armed gangs.

Mr. J.J. HARDER (Press Attache): Well, that government lives in a dream world if it believes that this country is overrun with armed gangs. It's blatant nonsense. It's fabrication. It's lies at best. They're delusional.

KENYON: The international community has been hesitant to declare Syrian President Bashar al-Assad illegitimate, in part because of Syria's delicate geopolitical situation, neighboring such volatile Mideast states as Israel, Iraq and Lebanon. But Harder said world outrage is growing at what he called the horrific brutality of the regime against its own people.

Mr. HARDER: And if this government wants to try to strong-arm its people into staying home during Ramadan, well, apparently it can try. But if the past four months are any indication at all, the people are going to continue to go out on the street and try to ask for their rights. And we in the international community have to - if we have integrity and credibility, we have to stand with them.

KENYON: President Obama said the U.S. will increase pressure on Syria in the coming days. Still, analysts say, huge questions remain about the nature of the opposition and where it might lead Syria should the al-Assad government fall.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.

INSKEEP: And we're continuing to follow this story today. Syrian troops, we're told, have launched another attack today on Hama as well as other cities around the country.

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