People are being slaughtered like sheep

Gunmen in plain clothes are said to be randomly shooting people in the streets of the besieged Syrian city of Hama and families are burying their loved ones in gardens at home for fear of being killed themselves if they venture out to cemeteries.

Military forces launched an offensive against anti-government dissent in Hama on Sunday and at least 100 people have been killed since, according to human rights groups.

Phones, internet and electricity have been cut or severely hampered for days.

A resident of the city told the Associated Press that people are being forced to ration food and share bread to get by during the holy month of Ramadan, when many Muslims fast from dawn to dusk then celebrate with large, festive meals after sundown.

“People are being slaughtered like sheep while walking in the street,” said the resident, who spoke by phone on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “I saw with my own eyes one young boy on a motorcycle who was carrying vegetables being run over by a tank.”

He said he left Hama briefly through side roads to smuggle in food supplies.

The resident said about 250 people had been killed since Sunday.

Hozan Ibrahim, of the Local Coordination Committees which tracks the crackdown on protesters, said up to 30 people may have been killed in Hama on Wednesday alone based on reports from fleeing residents. But neither of those numbers could be immediately verified.

Families have resorted to burying their loved ones in home gardens or roadside pits “because we fear that if we go to the cemetery, we will end up buried along with them”, the resident said.

He said the army and pro-government gunmen known as “shabiha” have been shooting randomly at people and keeping food supplies from entering the city.

Activists have expressed concern about worsening humanitarian conditions in Hama, saying medical supplies and bread were in short supply even before the latest siege. Phones and internet in Hama have been cut or severely hampered for at least two days. Electricity has been out or sporadic since Sunday.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the London-based Observatory for Human Rights, said about 1000 families had fled Hama in the past two days, most of them to the village of Mashtal Hilu west of Hama and al-Salamieh to the east.

The siege of Hama is part of a new government offensive to quell an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian rule. Now in their fifth month, the protests have been gaining momentum in defiance of the military crackdown.

Hama, a city of 800,000 with a history of dissent, had fallen largely out of government control since June as residents turned on the regime and blockaded the streets against encroaching tanks.

But Syrian security forces launched a ferocious military offensive that left corpses in streets on Sunday and sent residents fleeing for their lives, according to residents.

In 1982, Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, ordered the military to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement there. Hama was sealed off and bombs dropped from above smashed areas of the city and killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people, rights groups say.

Bashar al-Assad has sought to deal with the extraordinary revolt against his family’s 40-year-dynasty through deadly force, but has also acknowledged the need for reform.

On Thursday, he issued two legislative decrees that will allow the formation of political parties alongside the Baath Party and enable newly formed parties to run for Parliament and local councils. Opposition figures dismiss the moves as tactics and insist they want regime change.

On Wednesday, Syrian tanks stormed Hama under heavy shelling, taking over a main city square. Activists said authorities have effectively imposed a news blackout on the city by cutting mobiles phones, landlines and internet.

About 1700 civilians have been killed since the uprising began in mid-March, according to tallies by activists.

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