Syria unrest: 'Eleven protesters killed in Hama'

YouTube image said to be of mass protest in Hama on 1 July Friday's protest in Hama was one of the largest in three months of demonstrations

Syrian troops have reportedly shot dead at least 11 anti-government protesters in the city of Hama.

Clashes in the central city continued for a second day on Tuesday as residents burned tyres and erected barriers to prevent tanks entering.

At least 20 people were arrested on Monday as troops sought to reassert control over the central city.

Hama was the scene of the suppression of an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's father in 1982.

There were reports that Tuesday's attacks centred on two districts north of the Orontes River, which divides the city of some 800,000 people.

Residents said the dead included two brothers, Baha and Khaled al-Nahar, Reuters news agency reports.

The reports cannot be independently verified as the Syrian authorities have banned most foreign media from the country.

"There is an open civil defiance in Hama," Rami Abdul-Rahman, the London-based director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told the Associated Press news agency.

Significance of Hama

Hama - a bastion of dissidence - occupies a significant place in the history of modern Syria. In 1982, then-President Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar, sent in troops to quell an uprising by the Sunni opposition Muslim Brotherhood. Tens of thousands were killed and the town flattened. The operation was led by the president's brother, Rifaat.

Similarly, current President Bashar Assad has turned to his own brother, Maher, who commands the army's elite Fourth Division, to deal with the unrest.

Hama, with a population 800,000, has seen some of the biggest protests and worst violence in Syria's 2011 uprising.

"There is a kind of determination not to submit to any tanks or military vehicles," he added.

He told Agence France Presse that at least 35 people had been wounded in the clashes.

On Friday, the city saw some of the biggest demonstrations yet against the rule of President Assad.

A day later, Mr Assad sacked local governor Ahmad Khaled Abdel Aziz for reportedly failing to suppress the protests.

Activists say more than 1,350 civilians and 350 security personnel have been killed across Syria since protests began in mid-March.

The opposition has refused to take part in any dialogue while the violence continues.

The French foreign ministry has condemned the violence.

'Repression'

"Yet again, the Syrian regime has chosen repression and the use of armed forces against its population, which only wants the right to exercise its fundamental rights," it said in a statement.

Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said the world could not stand "inactive and powerless" in the face of the violence, adding that he hoped the Security Council would adopt a "clear and firm position" on Syria in the light of the "unacceptable, ferocious and implacable armed repression".

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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Syrian activists have suggested that the symbolism of a crackdown in Hama - where at least 10,000 people died when a Muslim Brotherhood uprising against then President Hafez al-Assad was crushed by the army in 1982 - made it unlikely.

"Assad may wait to see whether large-scale protests in Hama continue. He knows that using military aggression against peaceful demonstrations in a symbolic place like Hama would lose him support even from Russia and China," activist Mohammad Abdallah told Reuters from Washington.

President Assad is facing the most serious challenge to his family's four-decade ruling dynasty in Syria.

The uprising shows no sign of letting up despite a deadly government crackdown that has brought international condemnation and sanctions.

His administration has blamed a "small faction" of "saboteurs" of exploiting popular grievances.

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