Amman: Syrian tanks pounded residential neighbourhoods across the city of Hama on Monday in the heaviest barrage of a two-day assault to crush street demonstrations against President Bashar Al Assad, witnesses said.
Earlier on Monday, residents said at least four civilians were killed by tank fire on the second day of attacks on the city, where memories are still vivid of the brutal suppression of an uprising in 1982.
Intense shelling began again after Ramadan evening prayers, concentrating on districts near the Al Bilal roundabout in the northwest of the city, the Jarajmeh district in the east and northern neighborhoods near the Omar bin Al Khattab mosque.
"The shells are falling once every ten seconds," one witness told Reuters by phone. The thump of artillery and explosions could be heard in the background.
At least 85 civilians have been reported killed in the crackdown on the central Syrian city, where Al Assad's father crushed an armed Muslim Brotherhood revolt 29 years ago by razing neighbourhoods and killing many thousands of people.
"No one can leave the town because the troops and shabbiha (pro-Assad militia) are shooting at random with machineguns," a resident, who gave his name as Raed, told Reuters by telephone during the earlier attack.
Security forces, dominated by Al Assad's minority Alawite sect, had besieged Hama, a mainly Sunni Muslim city of 700,000, for nearly a month before the assault.
Analysts said that by choosing to crush the dissent there with overwhelming military force, Al Assad had chosen a path of no return against those clamouring for his overthrow.
His government is signalling to its critics abroad that it will not bow to calls for change that have swept across the Arab world, and to its people that it is prepared to wade through blood to stay in power.
"What has been clear is that the government is prepared to use force without limit," Beirut-based Middle East analyst Rami Khouri told Reuters. "But this is not solving the problem. instead, it is making the rebellion more robust."
Residents said among those killed on Monday was Khaled Adel Al Shaikh Mossa, whose house was hit in early morning shelling. A roof of another house collapsed and a pharmacy was destroyed. A doctor said a youth died after being shot in the chest.
Army tanks also stormed the eastern town of Albu Kamal after a two-week siege, activists in the region said, as the military steps up assaults aimed at subduing dissent in the tribal Deir Al Zor province bordering Iraq's Sunni heartland.
They said one man, Ebrahim Al Mashadani, was killed as tanks occupied the centre. Residents said tanks surrounded Albu Kamal on July 17 after thousands of people, emboldened by army defections in the town, staged anti-Al Assad protests.
The latest violence cast a pall over the start of Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast in daylight hours.
Residents said at least 29 civilians had been killed in a weekend tank assault on Deir Al Zor, the provincial capital.
Syrian authorities have expelled most foreign journalists since the anti-Assad protests began in March, making it hard to verify activists' reports or official statements.
More EU sanctions
The European Union extended sanctions against Al Assad's government, imposing asset freezes and travel bans on five more people associated with the crackdown. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said more sanctions could be levied unless the Syrian leadership changed course.
The UN Security Council is due to hold an emergency session on Syria later on Monday.
Reed Brody, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, criticised countries including Russia, China, South Africa, India and Brazil for blocking United Nations sanctions. "These countries have blood on their hands," he said.
Russia and China have previously opposed any condemnation of Syria in the council, where they hold veto powers. But Moscow signalled a change of tone on Monday.
"Moscow is seriously concerned by information about numerous casualties," the Russian Foreign Ministry said. "The use of force against civilians and representatives of state structures is unacceptable and must cease."
Most Arab countries have remained silent on Syria.
Turkey, one of Al Assad's main allies until the revolt, said it was shocked by the use of tanks to quell civilian protests.
"The footage from Monday's events has horrified us," Turkish President Abdullah Gul said. "The use of heavy weapons in Hama against civilians has given me a deep shock."
The 1982 Hama massacre instilled such fear that few Syrians were ready to challenge Assad family rule openly until this year, when many were inspired by the largely peaceful popular uprisings that toppled Arab autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia.
The Muslim Brotherhood accused the Alawite elite of waging sectarian warfare on Sunnis by attacking Hama.
"Syria is witnessing a war of sectarian cleansing. The regime has linked its open annihilation with the crescent of Ramadan. It is a war on the identity and beliefs of the Syrian nation ... on Arab Muslim Syria," it said in a statement.
The Syrian leadership blames "armed terrorist groups" for most killings during the revolt, saying that more than 500 soldiers and security personnel have been killed.
In a letter to the military, Al Assad spoke of a foreign plot to sow sectarian strife and "tear Syria into small statelets that compete to satisfy those who worked to slice them up".
The state news agency said the military entered Hama to purge armed groups that were terrorising citizens, an account dismissed as "nonsense" by a US diplomat in Damascus.
The agency said eight police were killed while "confronting armed terrorist groups" in Hama.
Footage posted on social media showed large parts of the city covered in smoke, and panic-stricken groups around dead or wounded people in the streets as gunfire rang out. Reuters could not independently verify the content of the videos.
Other footage purporting to be from the city of Homs showed crowds chanting: "Hama, we are with you until death, Deir Al Zor, we are with you until death."
US President Barack Obama said he was appalled by the Syrian government's "horrifying" violence against its people in Hama and promised to work with others to isolate Al Assad.
A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters in London: "We are absolutely appalled by the reports coming out of Syria and utterly condemn the violence and urge the Syrian authorities to stop. "We will continue to apply pressure where we can."