BEIRUT – Syria’s government showed off TV and still images of burned buildings and rubble-strewn streets empty of people in Hama, the epicenter of anti-regime protests, and claimed Friday it was putting an end to the rebellion in the besieged city.
Under the suffocating clampdown, residents of the city warned that medical supplies were running out and food was rotting after six days without electricity.
Across the country, tens of thousands of protesters marched, chanting their solidarity with Hama and demanding the ouster of President Bashar Assad. They were met by security forces who opened fire, killing at least 13 people, activists said.
Government forces began their ferocious assault on Hama on Sunday, cutting off electricity, phone services and Internet and blocking supplies into the city of 800,000 as they shelled neighborhoods and sent in tanks and ground raids.
It appeared to be an all-out attempt to take back the city after residents all but took it over in June. Rights groups say at least 100 people have been killed, while some estimates put the number as high as 250.
Syrian state media on Friday proclaimed army units were “working to restore security, stability and normal life to Hama,” which it said had been taken over by “terrorists.” The message mirrored the regime’s claim that armed extremists seeking to destabilize the country are behind the unrest, not true reform-seekers.
There were no reports of protests in the city during the day Friday – a contrast to previous weeks when hundreds of thousands participated in the biggest marches in the country.
Witnesses have painted a grim picture of life in Hama. One resident said Thursday that people were “being slaughtered like sheep while walking in the street.”
There were also fears of an intensified assault on the oil center of Deir el-Zour to the east, where tanks have been deployed at entrances since earlier this week. Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the London-based Observatory for Human Rights in Syria, said a quarter of the city’s population of 600,000 have fled.
The uprising, now in its fifth month, has proved remarkably resilient, continuing daily and expanding despite a crackdown that has killed at least 1,700 people.
But protesters have so far failed to mobilize the middle class and Muslim Sunni elite to form a real threat to Assad’s minority Alawite rule. Organizers had hoped to garner the increased religious fervor of Ramadan to give the protests a further boost. But so far that has yet to materialize.
Since the start of Ramadan on Monday, many anti-government protesters were choosing instead to stage nightly protests, usually numbering in the thousands, following special Ramadan nighttime prayers.