Syrian city of Hama blacked out

BEIRUT – Syrian authorities kept the restive city of Hama under a blackout on Thursday, cutting phone lines, Internet and electricity as part of a brutal, five-day-old crackdown on anti-government dissent. Activists expressed concern about worsening humanitarian conditions there, saying medical supplies and bread were in short supply even before the latest siege. Gunmen in plainclothes are randomly shooting people in the streets of the besieged Syrian city of Hama and families are burying their loved ones in gardens at home for fear of being killed themselves if they venture out to cemeteries, a resident said.

“People are being slaughtered like sheep while walking in the street,” said the resident, who spoke by phone on condition of anonymity. “I saw with my own eyes one young boy on a motorcycle who was carrying vegetables being run over by a tank.” He said he left Hama briefly through side roads to smuggle in food supplies. The resident said around 250 people have been killed since Sunday. Hozan Ibrahim, of the Local Coordination Committees which tracks the crackdown on protesters, said up to 30 people may have been killed in Hama on Wednesday only based on reports from fleeing residents. But neither of those numbers could be immediately verified.

Phones and Internet in Hama have been cut or severely hampered for at least two days. Electricity has been out or sporadic since Sunday. Rami Abdul Rahman, who heads the London-based Observatory for Human Rights, said that some 1,000 families have fled Hama in the past two days, most of them to the village of Mashtal Hilu west of Hama and Al Salamieh to the east. — AP

On Thursday, President Bashar Assad issued two legislative decrees that will allow the formation of political parties alongside the Baath Party and enable newly formed parties to run for parliament and local councils. Both draft bills were endorsed by the cabinet last month, and were key demands of the opposition movement. But opposition figures now dismiss the moves as manoeuvring tactics and insist they want regime change.

Abdul Karim Rihawi, Damascus-based chief of the Syrian Human Rights League, said there was no information coming out from Hama on Thursday. “A high number of casualties is expected from such a massive military operation,” he said. Ibrahim said there is concern about a deterioration in the humanitarian situation in Hama because medical supplies and bread were in short supply even before the latest crackdown and those shortages were growing more dire.

Rihawi said that elsewhere in Syria, seven people were killed by security forces on Wednesday night. Two protesters were shot dead in the Damascus central neighbourhood of Midan, three in the southern village of Nawa and one in the ancient city of Palmyra. An 11-year-old boy was also killed when security forces opened fire on a protest in Talbiseh, near Homs, he said. He said more than 60 Syrian children have died since the start of the protests in March.

The Local Coordination Committees confirmed the deaths. Since the holy month of Ramadan started on Monday, faithful have been thronging mosques for Taraweeh prayers. The gatherings have turned into large anti-government protests that draw fierce military force to try to break them up. Abdul Rahman said military operations were also under way in the central city of Homs, where heavy machine guns and automatic gunfire was heard throughout the night in the Bab Sbaa and Qalaa districts. At least 27 people have been arrested in security raids, he said.

Amateur videos posted by activists online showed dozens of people in Damascus’ district of Midan clapping their hands and shouting: “We don’t love you, Bashar!” and “Bashar, leave!” after emerging from the city’s Daqaq Mosque. The footage, which activists said was taken on Wednesday night, then shows chaos breaking out as gunfire is heard, and the camera zooms onto vehicles with bullet holes and smashed windows. Another video also posted overnight showed a large group of people in Hama’s Kfarzita district marching and shouting: “The people want to topple the regime.”

The military offensive against Hama, 210km north of the capital Damascus, prompted the UN Security Council to act after months of deadlock. A Council statement late on Wednesday condemned Assad’s forces for attacking civilians and committing human rights violations. It called on Syrian authorities to immediately end all violence and launch an inclusive political process that will allow the Syrian people to fully exercise “fundamental freedoms … including that of expression and peaceful assembly”.

British foreign secretary William Hague said the statement “demonstrates the rising international concern at the unacceptable behavior of the regime and shows that President Assad is increasingly isolated”. French foreign minister Alain Juppe called the statement “a turning point in the attitude of the international community” and said Syria must now halt the attacks and implement reforms. About 1,700 civilians have been killed since the uprising began in mid-March, according to tallies by activists. Authorities in Syria blame the unrest on a foreign conspiracy and armed extremists seeking to destabilise Syria, as opposed to true reform-seekers. – khaleejtimes