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Syrian Government Escalates Crackdown Ahead Of Ramadan

GUY RAZ, host: We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

The Syrian government launched a major tank offensive against its own citizens in the city of Hama today. Hama is about 200 miles north of the country's capitol Damascus. There are reports that there is another military push in the eastern part of the country against a city harboring soldiers who joined protesters. And in the capitol, a campaign of arrests. Activists and western diplomats say the death toll is more than 100 in what appears to be an all-out effort to crush a four-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

NPR's Deborah Amos is monitoring events in Syria from Beirut, and she joins us now. Deb, tell us what happened in the city of Hama today.

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, we were actually able to find out because we could call into the city. And early this morning while the town was asleep, tanks began pounding the city from the outskirts, firing shells every minute, say residents there. Snipers were shooting indiscriminately from rooftops. The videos emerging show black smoke billowing over buildings. You could see people rushing through the streets with the wounded. One activist told me that young men were facing the tanks with stones and slingshots. They were trying to protect the barricades that they had put up to all the entrances to the city.

I talked to doctors today in Damascus who were hopping in their car, driving to Hama with bags of blood and medical supplies. We know that at least 95 people died - this is according to monitoring groups - but the number is expected to rise because those hospitals were overwhelmed.

RAZ: Hama, of course, is a city where Syrian forces put down another uprising in 1982 leaving thousands of Syrians dead. How does that incident play into what's happening now?

AMOS: In some ways, I think the residents of Hama may have thought that they were immune from an attack on this scale. Back in 1982, President Hafez al-Assad ordered what was a massacre in Hama to put down an uprising, and that legacy overshadowed the remainder of his rule. Many thought that his son, Bashar al-Assad, the president now, was a different kind of leader.

Hama plays a symbolic role in the history of the Middle East. The Turkish prime minister just a few weeks ago said we must have no more Hamas. And at the same time, Hama has played this significant role in the latest uprising. They've had the biggest protest.

Now, a month ago, the government withdrew all the security forces, and Hama began to organize itself and have these large protests. What appears to have happened today, this was a last ditch attempt to control the city again.

RAZ: The Syrian government is saying that the army came to Hama to stop armed gangs in the city. Has there been any reaction to that?

AMOS: Well, that has been the government line all along, since the uprising began. Today, a U.S. official said on an Arabic news channel that the Syrian government is delusional. International condemnation has already started from the British, from the Americans, and many Syrians are alarmed by what happened today.

RAZ: Deb, all of this is happening just a day before the holy month of Ramadan begins. And also, there was a military sweep in the eastern part of the country today as well, I understand.

AMOS: Yeah. Hama was just a part of a wider campaign. In the eastern desert, the city of Deir ez-Zor, a big crackdown there. This has been a place where there's been army defections, and these were soldiers that sided with the people to protect them from the army.

What is interesting is it's all taking place on the day before Ramadan. Now, activists have said that they will step up the pace of protest in this month, this holy month for Muslims. Bashar al-Assad's regime appears to be taking a final attempt to crush this movement. This has been the toughest crackdown in four months.

RAZ: That's NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut. Deb, thanks.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.