BEIRUT -- Syrian troops moved tanks into the heart of the rebellious city of Hama on Wednesday, intensifying a days-long assault on a city that symbolizes resistance to President Bashar Assad.
Authorities cut off telephone, Internet and at least some electricity and water lines to the city. Witnesses and activists reached by satellite telephone described scenes of chaos as tanks took positions in the city center.
Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, killed up to 30,000 people and flattened huge sections of the city to squash a similar uprising in 1982. The younger Assad's willingness to employ the same methods suggests that he, his powerful brother and close members of his ruling Alawite Shiite minority sect view the current uprising as a threat that must be crushed regardless of the human or political costs.
Activists said tank and rocket fire was concentrated in districts of Hama where protesters regularly gather for rallies. Many were attempting to flee the city, but were cut off by tanks and soldiers, who also prevent food from entering. Video footage posted to the Internet showed panicked groups of protesters fleeing amid barrages of heavy gunfire.
"The tanks rolled into Hama at 5 a.m.," said Salah, a 30-year-old Hama Web developer reached by telephone. "They got to city center and residential neighborhoods. We noticed we had lost Internet and phone connections. We heard heavy artillery all around us, bearing down on the streets."
Security forces bore down especially hard on those attempting to gather for public prayers at mosques during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that began Monday. The opposition has said Ramadan may be a make-or-break period for the uprising, now 4 1/2 months old, which was inspired by revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
"As we perform our nightly prayers during Ramadan, the regime is working to scatter us, prevent us from going to mosques," said Rabih, a Syrian opposition activist in Hama reached by satellite phone. He declined to give his last name. "Before, people were kept from larger avenues. Now they are kept from every single street. Families have been trying to move out to bordering neighborhoods to stay alive."
Few Western officials or independent observers buy the Syrian government's argument that it is fighting an armed insurrection by Islamic extremists. Its use of such rhetoric -- as well as imagery including state television footage showing what it called protesters firing weapons and dumping bodies into a river -- has increased fears it is girding for all-out war.
European and U.S. officials have punished Syria with a series of sanctions, hurting the country's fragile economy. Officials at the United Nations are discussing the merits of a possible Security Council resolution condemning Syria's actions but have been unable to agree on the wording. Russia and China, both veto-wielding members of the council, have blocked past initiatives to punish Assad.
Hama activists urged the international community to do more, some even suggesting armed intervention.
"We want to send the international community this message: that if we turn to extremism it will be on them," said Rabih, the activist. "I am an educated man. Even as an intellectual, I am afraid of being taken by my emotions if someone threatens my wife, my daughter. We are resilient.
"Ramadan has empowered us. But we feel afraid, and we feel the fire of injustice burn in our hearts."
(Special correspondent Roula Hajjar contributed to this report.)
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