On the last day before Ramadan, they came. Tanks surrounded the city from four sides, various news agencies reported this morning.
"They started shooting with heavy machines guns at civilians, at the young men protecting the barricades," said Omar Halabi, an activist in Hama, speaking by Skype to the Guardian. "People started to scream, to say Allahu Akbar and wake each other up. They started to come down into the streets."
Hama's residents didn't believe they would get away with protesting in the thousands against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and on the eve of Ramadan, when protesters said they would intensify protests, the regime clearly decided to spring.
The regime's security forces had withdrawn from the city after shooting over 70 residents dead on June 3. But July 31 may stand out along with the horrible date of February 1982 – the year when Bashar's father squashed an armed Islamist revolt, killing at least 10,000. An ominous sign that the security forces were on their way came when water and electricity was cut in many areas, repeating a tactic in other cities prior to military incursions, the Guardian reported.
The state news agency said the military entered Hama to stop armed groups “shooting intensively to terrorize citizens," the Globe and Mail reported.
A U.S. embassy official dismissed the official account, saying Syrian authorities had begun a war against their own people by attacking Hama. Britain and France, which had led European peace negotiations toward Mr. Assad, also condemned the assault.
A Syrian human rights organization said the civilian death toll in Hama had risen to 80. The independent group cited medical officials and witnesses in its report.
Some analysts said the attack on Hama marks a significant racheting up of Mr. Assad’s reliance on the military to stifle the protesters.
“Assad has chosen to dig deeper into the security option, especially with a retreat in the tough international and regional stances against the regime,” said Yasser Saadedine, a Syrian living in Qatar, told Reuters.
European Union governments planned to extend sanctions against Mr. Assad’s government on Monday by slapping asset freezes and travel bans on five more people. The EU has already imposed sanctions on Assad and at least two dozen officials and targeted military-linked companies in Syria.
The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, visited Hama earlier this month in a gesture of international support for what he described as peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations, the Globe and Mail also reported.
Hama residents said tanks and snipers were firing on unarmed residential districts where inhabitants had set up makeshift roadblocks on Sunday.
They said that irregular Alawite “shabbiha” militia that al-Assad relies upon, accompanied the invading forces in buses.