Syria is bleeding - 140 dead in Hama
Damascus - Syrian forces killed nearly 140 people on Sunday including 100 when the army stormed the flashpoint protest city of Hama to crush dissent on the eve of Ramadan, activists said.
Activists said it was one of deadliest days in Syria since demonstrators first took to the streets on March 15 demanding democratic reforms before turning their wrath on the regime and calling for its ousting.
As reports of the brutal military crackdown on Hama unfurled, Britain, Germany, France and Italy condemned the violence while a US diplomat said it was "full-on warfare".
"It is one of the deadliest days" since the protests erupted in mid-March, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Death tolls provided by the Observatory and other human rights groups showed that at least 136 people were killed across Syria - with most of them falling in Hama.
"One hundred civilians were killed on Sunday in Hama by gunfire from security forces who accompanied the army as it stormed the city," said Abdel Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights.
Rihawi said five other people were killed in the central city of Homs and three more in the northwestern province of Idlib when security forces opened fire on protesters who rallied in support of Hama.
The head of the National Organisation for Human Rights, Ammar Qorabi, put the toll in Hama at 95 dead. The Observatory's Abdel Rahman said 47 people were killed in and around the central city but the toll could rise.
500 000 rallied
"The number of those wounded is huge and hospitals cannot cope, particularly because we lack the adequate equipment," Abdel Rahman quoted a Hama hospital source as saying.
Abdel Rahman said the crackdown on Hama came after more than 500 000 people rallied in the city on Friday following Muslim prayers during which a cleric told the congregation "the regime must go".
Activists also reported several deaths in Deir Ezzor, Syria's main gas- and oil-production hub in the east of the country, which has become a rallying point for the anti-regime protests along with Hama.
At least 19 people were killed in Deir Ezzor, six in Herak in the south, and one in Al-Bukamal in the east, said Qorabi, adding most of those shot in Deir Ezzor were "hit in the head and the neck" by snipers.
The Syrian Revolution 2011, an internet group that has been a driving force behind the protests, urged demonstrators to gather nationwide after Ramadan "taraweeh" evening prayers later on Sunday "for retaliation protests".
"Syria is bleeding" it said.
Western powers condemned the violence amid warnings from Berlin and Paris of fresh sanctions against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"If President Assad fails to change course, we and our partners in the EU will impose new sanctions," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
A French foreign ministry statement said: "Syrian political, military and security leaders must know, now more than ever, that they will have to answer for their deeds."
"The continuing of the repression and atrocities against civilians is particularly unacceptable on the eve of the month of Ramadan and can only lead to more instability and violence across the country," it added.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was "appalled" by the storming of Hama and urged Assad to rein in his troops.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini called the Hama crackdown "the latest horrible act of violent repression against protesters".
A US diplomat in Damascus told BBC World Service radio that the crackdown on Hama amounted to "full-on warfare" and a final act of desperation.
"There is one big armed gang in Syria, and it's named the Syrian government," said JJ Harder, the press attache at the American embassy in Damascus.
One resident reached by phone told AFP the army entered Hama at around 06:00 (03:00 GMT) in an apparent operation to wrest back control after security forces withdrew from the city almost two months ago.
Another said: "Five tanks are now deployed outside the governor's palace," and spoke of intermittent gunfire.
The official Sana news agency meanwhile charged that gunmen shot dead two security forces in Hama while a colonel and two soldiers were "martyred" in Deir Ezzor.
Sana said the gunmen torched police stations and attacked private and public property in Hama, adding soldiers tore down barricades and checkpoints set up by the armed men at the city's entrance.
The Observatory said the army also launched an operation against Muadhamiya in the Damascus region at dawn, "with tanks blocking the southern, eastern and western entrances to the town," Abdel Rahman said.
The Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights reported more than 300 people detained in Muadhamiya.
Also arrested was Bagara tribal chief and opposition figure Nawwaf Ragheb al-Bashir, who was seized on Saturday in Deir Ezzor, according to the Syrian League.
The Observatory reported demonstrations in the central city of Homs and along the Aleppo-Damascus highway - which residents cut off in several points - to protest against the Hama crackdown.
In 1982, an estimated 20 000 people were killed in Hama when the army put down an Islamist revolt against the rule of Assad's late father, Hafez.
The president replaced the governor of Hama after a record 500 000 protesters rallied in the opposition bastion on July 1 calling for the fall of the regime.
At least 1 583 civilians and 369 members of the army and security forces have been killed since mid-March in Syria, according to the Observatory.