AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian tanks firing shells and machineguns stormed the city of Hama Sunday, killing at least 45 civilians in a move to crush demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad's rule, residents and activists said.
Assad's forces began their assault on the city, scene of a 1982 massacre, at dawn after besieging it for nearly a month. The state news agency said the military entered Hama to cleanse it of armed groups "shooting intensively to terrorize citizens."
A U.S. embassy official dismissed the official account, saying Syrian authorities had begun a war against their own people by attacking Hama. Britain and France, which had led European overtures toward Assad, also condemned the assault.
"It is desperate. The authorities think that somehow they can prolong their existence by engaging in full armed warfare on their own citizens," U.S. Press Attache J.J. Harder told Reuters by telephone from Damascus. He described the official Syrian account of the violence as "nonsense."
European Union governments planned to extend sanctions against Assad's government Monday by slapping asset freezes and travel bans on five more people. The EU has already imposed sanctions on Assad and at least two dozen officials and targeted military-linked companies in Syria.
A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the reports of violence inflicted on peaceful protesters were "appalling," calling on Assad to desist from attacks now and pursue meaningful democratic change.
The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, visited Hama earlier this month in a gesture of international support for what he described as peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations.
Hama residents said tanks and snipers were firing Sunday at unarmed residential districts where inhabitants had set up makeshift roadblocks to try and stop their advance.
They said that the irregular "shabbiha" militia from the minority Alawite sect, to which the Assad family belongs, accompanied the invading forces in buses.
Syrian authorities have expelled most independent journalists, making it difficult to verify reports of violence.
Hama has particular significance for the anti-Assad movement since Assad's father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, sent in troops to smash an Islamist-led uprising there in 1982, razing entire neighborhoods and killing up to 30,000 people in the bloodiest episode of Syria's modern history.
The Alawites have dominated Syria, a majority Sunni Muslim country, since the Baath Party took power in a 1963 coup.
In 2000, Assad succeeded his late father, keeping the autocratic political system he inherited intact, while expanding the Assad family's share of the economy through monopolies awarded to relatives and friends.
HOT RAMADAN EXPECTED
The demonstrations have pitted mainly Sunni demonstrators against mostly Alawite secret police and ultra-loyalist army divisions commanded by Assad's feared brother Maher.
Opposition sources said Sunday that secret police personnel had arrested Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, head of the main Baqqara tribe in the rebellious province of Deir al-Zor.
Bashir, who commands the allegiance of an estimated 1.2 million Baqqara, was abducted in the Ein Qirsh district of Damascus Saturday afternoon, they added.
Hours before his arrest Bashir told Reuters he was striving to stop armed resistance to a military assault on the provincial capital of Deir al-Zor and to convince inhabitants to stick to peaceful methods, despite killings by security forces.
Citing hospital officials, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll in Hama was likely to rise, with dozens badly wounded in the attack.
A doctor, who did not want to be further identified for fear of arrest, told Reuters that most bodies were taken to the city's Badr, al-Horani and Hikmeh hospitals.
Scores of people were wounded and blood for transfusions was in short supply, he said by telephone from the city, which has a population of around 700,000.
"Tanks are attacking from four directions. They are firing their heavy machineguns randomly and overrunning makeshift road blocks erected by the inhabitants," the doctor said, the sound of machinegun fire crackling in the background.
The state news agency said military units were fighting gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns.
Yasser Saadeldine, a Syrian Islamist living in exile in Qatar, said the attack of Hama marks a significant escalation in Assad's reliance on the military to try and suppress the revolt.
"Assad has chosen to dig deeper into the security option, especially with a retreat in the tough international and regional stances against the regime," Saadedine told Reuters.
"Assad is trying to resolve the matter before Ramadan when every daily fasting prayer threatens to become another Friday. But he is pouring oil on a burning fire and now the Hama countryside is rising in revolt," said Saadeldine, in reference the Muslim holy month, which begins in Syria Monday.
Another resident said that in Sunday's assault, bodies were lying uncollected in the streets and so the death toll would rise. Army snipers had climbed onto the roofs of the state-owned electricity company and the main prison, he said.
Tank shells were falling at the rate of four a minute in and around northern Hama, residents said, and electricity and water supplies to the main neighborhoods had been cut, a tactic used regularly by the military when storming towns to crush protests.
INSPIRATION: ARAB SPRING
Assad is trying to choke off an uprising that broke out in March, inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and has spread across many areas of Syria.
Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, however, there has been no swift downfall of the autocratic elite because of a much harsher security crackdown on protesters and the fears of a significant number of Syrians who have not joined the unrest about possible sectarian anarchy if Assad is forced out precipitously.
In southern Syria, rights campaigners said security forces killed three civilians when they stormed houses in the town of al-Hirak, 35 km (20 miles) northeast of the city of Deraa.
Local activists and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights added dozens of people, including three women, were arrested.
The Observatory said troops also arrested more than 100 people in the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiyah. A Western diplomat said he saw several tanks enter the suburb.
"The regime thinks it can scare people before Ramadan and make them stay home. But especially the people of Hama have shown themselves to be resilient," the diplomat said.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, once one of Assad's main allies, said in May "we do not want to see another Hama massacre," and warned the 45-year-old president that it would be hard to contain the consequences if it were repeated.
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.
An activist group, Avaaz, said in a report last week that Syrian security forces had killed 1,634 people in the course of their crackdown, while at least 2,918 had disappeared. A further
26,000 had been arrested, many of whom were beaten and tortured, and 12,617 remained in detention, it said.
In the east of the country, Syrian forces began an assault two days ago in a tribal oil-producing province on the border with Iraq's Sunni heartland. Residents said at least 11 civilians were killed in Deir al-Zor Saturday and Sunday.
"There are army tanks in the streets, but most of the deaths have been at the hands of Military Intelligence," one of the residents told Reuters.
The Syrian Revolution Coordination Union said 57 soldiers in Deir al-Zor, including two lieutenants and a captain, had defected to the demonstrators. It said residents had formed local committees and erected makeshift barriers to try to halt the advance of tanks and armoured vehicles inside the city.
Syrian television said an army colonel and two soldiers have been killed by armed groups in Deir al-Zor.
(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi and Oliver Holmes; Editing by Mark Heinrich)