Middle East

Syria unrest: Tanks storm city of Hama

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Media captionThe BBC's Jim Muir says unverified footage appears to show tanks on the streets of Hama

Syrian troops and tanks have reportedly advanced deep into the central city of Hama to put an end to weeks of anti-government protests.

Residents said tanks had reached Assi Square in the city centre, focus of mass rallies against President Bashar al-Assad.

There are reports of severe destruction and piles of bodies in the city.

After days of debate, the UN Security Council has agreed on the wording of a statement to condemn the violence.

The 15-member council formally adopted the statement condemning the "the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities" and calling for those responsible to be held "accountable".

However, Syria's neighbour, Lebanon, while not going as far as blocking adoption of the statement, disassociated itself from the text after it was adopted - a procedure last used decades ago.

The BBC's Barbara Plett at the UN, in New York, says the statement is less than what the European states on the council would have liked, but is more than might have been expected given the strong opposition to saying anything on Syria from some members.

Human rights groups say at least 140 people have been killed in the Syrian unrest since Sunday, mainly in Hama, adding to a civilian death toll believed to be more than 1,600 since March.

Protesters were inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Mr Assad has promised reforms, but blames the violence on "armed criminal gangs" backed by unspecified foreign powers.

Access to events in Syria has been severely restricted for international journalists and it is rarely possible to verify accounts by witnesses and opposition activists.

'Finishing us off'

Activists and residents of Hama, a city of 800,000, said tanks pushed in to the city centre on Wednesday morning, reaching Assi (Orontes) Square.

Earlier, reports spoke of columns of armoured vehicles heading towards the city from where the sound of shelling could be heard.

One resident of the city told the BBC's Damascus correspondent, Lina Sinjab, that he believed a massacre was taking place. He said he had seen piles of bodies in different parts of the city.

There are reports that families trying to flee the city have been shot at to force them to turn back.

Some families who have managed to leave have described the situation as worse than the 1980s, when the late President Hafez Assad, father of the current leader, crushed an uprising, leaving at least 10,000 people dead and the old quarter flattened.

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Media captionUnverified amateur footage purportedly shows newly-dug graves in Syria

One unnamed Hama resident, who spoke by satellite phone, told Reuters: "The regime is using the media focus on the Hosni Mubarak trial [which opened in Egypt on Wednesday] to finish off Hama."

Communication with the city is all but cut off completely, as are water and electricity, correspondents say.

While about 100 tanks and troop carriers have made for Hama, a further 200 were seen near the eastern town of Deir al-Zour, Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told the AFP news agency.

The continuing violence drew a strong response from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday.

Mr Assad "must be aware that under international humanitarian law, this is accountable", he said.

"I believe that he lost all sense of humanity," he added.

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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