Syrian tanks occupied the main in central Hama after heavy shelling of the city, residents said.
“All communications have been cut off. The regime is using the media focus on the Hosni Mubarak trial to finish off Hama,” one of the residents told Reuters by satellite phone from the city, adding that shelling concentrated on al-Hader district, large parts of which were was razed during a 1982 military assault on Hama that killed thousands.
The square has been the venue of some of the largest demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule during a five month street uprising for political freedoms.
Syrian forces have killed nearly 142 people, including at least 100 when the army stormed the flashpoint protest city of Hama to crush dissent on the eve of Ramadan, activists have said.
Rights groups said it was one of deadliest days in Syria since demonstrators first took to the streets on March 15, demanding democratic reforms and the downfall of the government.
As reports of the brutal crackdown on Hama unfurled, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Turkey condemned the violence, while a US diplomat said it was “full-on warfare”.
“It is one of the deadliest days” since the protests erupted, Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.
The U.S. response (Obama said he was “appalled”):
“It is resorting to some desperate last ditch attempt, trying to save itself. It is full-on warfare on its own people,” [J. J.] Harder, the press attaché of the US embassy in the Syrian capital, said.
The Syrian authorities have consistently accused “armed gangs” and fundamentalist Salafist Muslims of stirring the unrest and aiming to sow chaos in the Sunni-majority country.
Asked if he accepted the Syrian government’s contention that its forces were up against armed gangs, Harder said: “The Syrian government is completely delusional. They are making up fanciful stories that no one believes.”
Germany threatened to new sanctions on Damascus along with its EU partners, and France warned Syria’s leaders “will have to answer for their deeds,” and Italy called the Hama crackdown “the latest horrible act of violent repression”.
Criticism also came from neighbour Turkey, which said it was “deeply saddened and disappointed … by the current developments on the eve of holy month of Ramadan”.
This is bad news. These deployments have generally preceded oppressive violence and the murder of protestors.
Syrian tanks have deployed at the entrances to the city of Hama, two days after it saw the largest protest against President Bashar al-Assad, according to activists and residents.
Troops backed by 97 tanks and personnel carriers advanced late Saturday on Kfar Rumma village and made arrests in the district of Jabal al-Zawiyah, Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP.
“Ninety-seven military vehicles, including tanks and personnel carriers, carrying thousands of soldiers moved Saturday night towards Kfar Rumma,” he said.
“Hundreds of residents emerged from their homes to confront them and prevent them from advancing, but the troops pursued their deployment to carry out their military operations.”
A resident of Hama said communication networks had been cut off in the city, a tactic that has been used by the military ahead of assaults on cities and towns elsewhere. Security forces and gunmen loyal to Assad were seen in several neighbourhoods, he said.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has removed the governor of Hama, one of the provinces at the heart of the ongoing protests, according to state television.
The sacking of Ahmad Khaled Abdel Aziz was announced on Saturday, a day after more than 400,000 people reportedly turned out in Hama city demanding the ouster of Assad and his government.
People filled the square around the central Clock Tower in what activists said was the biggest demonstration since the uprising began in March.
Referring to Assad’s recent speech at Damascus University in which he characterised the protesters as “germs” that Syria must inoculate itself against, a local activist said: ”Here we are, the germs of Syria,” adding: “But we are big germs in huge numbers.”
He said there was no visible security presence in Hama, only checkpoints at the entrances. “There’s not even traffic police,” he told Al Jazeera.
The sacking by Assad of Ahmed Abdul-Aziz, a former professor of international law at Damascus University, was published on SANA, the state-run news agency, which gave no reason for his dismissal. The governor was appointed in late February to a position often held in Syria for decades.
Following the killing of at least 67 protestors in a single day in Hama one month ago, Assad pledged an investigation, a sign of the regime’s nervousness over attacks on a city still deeply scarred by the killing in 1982 of between 20,000 and 30,000 civilians, ordered by Assad’s father, Hafez, in response to an armed uprising by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
But the sacking of the governor appears to have come in direct response to Friday’s massive protest, which had a carnival-like atmosphere centred around Assi Square, renamed by the mainly young protestors Freedom Square.