BEIRUT (AP) — Tanks took over a main square in the besieged Syrian city of Hama and electricity and telephone phone lines were cut off Wednesday as President Bashar Assad's regime showed no signs of halting the intense military assault against an uprising now in its fifth month, activists said.
At least three tanks took up position in Hama's central Assi square, which had been thronged by hundreds of thousands of anti-regime protesters in the weeks before the latest crackdown in some the largest demonstrations against Assad's rule.
For the past four days, Syrian troops have tightened their siege on Hama, sending residents fleeing for their lives. The death toll since Sunday has reached around 100 people, but the exact figure is difficult to verify, according to activists.
Activists reported a new military push into the city early Wednesday, with fresh explosions and machine gun fire heard in many parts of the city.
"We are being subjected to shelling, machine gun fire, snipers fire, everything you can think of," said activist Omar al-Hamawi.
Electricity and telephone lines were cut Wednesday morning but mobile phone lines appeared to have been partially restored by early afternoon.
Al-Hamawy, reached by phone, said the shelling was mostly targeting al-Hader neighborhood. He said sporadic tank and gunfire was also heard in various other parts of the city. He spoke briefly saying he had to save his phone battery to call and check on relatives.
Telephone calls to other activists and Hama residents were not going through.
"Early this morning people heard the sound of bombs," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. "Then the phone lines were cut."
He says residents on the outskirts of Hama reported seeing lines of tanks heading toward the city early in the day, and the blasts were heard soon after.
The observatory relies on a network of sources on the ground throughout Syria.
The Hama operation has drawn a fresh wave of international condemnation against a regime defying the growing calls to end its crackdown on anti-government protesters.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday met with U.S.-based Syrian democracy activists as the Obama administration weighed new sanctions on Syria. Congressional calls also mounted for action against Assad's regime.
Italy recalled Tuesday its ambassador to Syria "in the face of the horrible repression against the civil population" by the government, which launched a new push against protesters as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began Monday.
It was the first European Union country to pull its ambassador, and the measure came a day after the EU tightened sanctions on Syria.
The mounting international outcry has had no apparent effect so far in Syria, an autocratic country that relies on Iran as a main ally in the region.
About 1,700 civilians have been killed since the largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime began in mid- March, according to tallies by activists.
Syria has banned independent media coverage and has prevented most foreign journalists from entering the country, preventing independent assessments of the events.
Hama, the focus of the crackdown, has a history of defiance.
In 1982, Assad's father, Hafez Assad, ordered the military to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement. The city was sealed off and bombs dropped from above smashed swaths of the city and killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people, rights groups say.
The real number may never be known. Then, as now, reporters were not allowed to reach the area.