Beirut, Lebanon - Syrian security forces bombed the central city of Hama for a second day on Monday as the government pressed its campaign to crush a four-month-old popular uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. On Sunday, at least 70 people were killed when the military and security forces assaulted Hama and other restive cities before dawn, in the broadest and fiercest crackdown yet.
The shelling resumed Monday in the early hours of the morning as people were returning home from mosques where they had performed dawn prayers, according to residents and protesters. At least three people were killed, according to activists.
Obada Arwany, an activist reached by telephone, said that tanks had entered two neighborhoods, Al Qousour and Al Hamidiya, and bombed residential buildings there. One man died in his sleep when his house was bombed and another was killed by a sniper’s bullet as he was getting in his car.
“The city is like a ghost town,” Mr. Arwany said. “We were not expecting this at all. Hama is getting massacred.”
One protester was also killed in Deir al-Zour in northwestern Syria, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group that helps organize and document protests.
The simultaneous raids on several cities on Sunday came a day before the holy month of Ramadan began, a time in which Syrian activists have vowed to escalate their uprising with nightly protests. The scale of the assault and the mounting death toll underlined the government’s intention to crush the uprising by force, despite international condemnation and its own tentative and mostly illusory reforms ostensibly aimed at placating protesters’ demands.
The scenes of bloodshed in Hama and Deir al-Zour on Sunday, cities that had slipped beyond the government’s control this summer, were certain to put more pressure on other countries, in particular the United States, to take a harder line against Mr. Assad. American and European officials have harshly criticized the Syrian president, and they did so again on Sunday.
President Obama described the government’s actions in Hama as “horrifying” events that “demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime.” But his administration has yet to demand formally that Mr. Assad leave power, as it has with Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya.
“Once again, President Assad has shown that he is completely incapable and unwilling to respond to the legitimate grievances of the Syrian people,” Mr. Obama said. “In the days ahead, the United States will continue to increase our pressure on the Syrian regime and work with others around the world to isolate the Assad government.”
The attacks also cast new light on decisions of the Syrian government, which have seemed bereft of any coherent strategy in its swings between promises of reform and episodes of harsh repression.
The assault on Hama ended before nightfall on Sunday and started again in the early hours Monday, suggesting that the government was bent most on intimidating a city where hundreds of thousands have turned out for weekly Friday protests and showed no signs of succumbing to pressure. Syrian forces also arrested a tribal leader in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour during the weekend, a detention sure to further roil a city whose residents are defiant and armed. Together, the actions hint at a government at a loss in trying to navigate one of the greatest challenges to the four decades of its dictatorial rule.
“The street won’t retreat,” Omar Habbal, an activist in Hama, said in a telephone interview. “The city has decided to defend itself, and if they think they can crush the rallies, they’re stupid.”
The fiercest operation over the weekend was in Hama, a city of 800,000 in central Syria, where at least 50 people were killed on Sunday, according to the Local Coordination Committees. Activists offered different estimates of the death toll; some put it at 76 or even higher. The numbers were impossible to confirm on a chaotic day punctuated by rumors of military desertions, calls for revenge and government claims of armed insurgents firing at civilians.
Since June, Hama has been largely free of security forces, allowing it to assert a measure of independence. In recent weeks, residents have built makeshift barricades, using streetlights, cinder blocks and sandbags to prevent security forces from re-entering. The defenses, however, stood little chance against tanks and armored vehicles, which began their assault from four directions before dawn.
Many in Syria had believed that the government would not dare try to retake Hama, given its bloody history with the government. In 1982, under the orders of Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, a military assault crushed an Islamist uprising in the city, one of Syria’s most conservative, killing at least 10,000 people and perhaps many more. The episode is one of the most brutal in the history of the modern Middle East.
On Sunday, residents offered wrenching accounts of youths trying to block the way of tanks with little more than sticks, stones and iron bars. Some of the young men in the town, who have manned barricades nightly for weeks, set fire to tires. Hospitals appealed for blood donations as the casualty toll mounted through the day, and videos posted on the Internet showed gray columns of smoke billowing over the city’s streets.
“Massacres, massacres are taking place here,” shouted Mr. Arwany on Sunday. “History is repeating itself. It is repeating itself.”
Sobbing, Mr. Arwany said residents shouted “God is great” as they stood in the tanks’ paths. He said that he had seen dead and wounded scattered among the barricades in the streets, the shooting too ferocious for residents to retrieve or rescue them. The gunfire intersected with rallying cries broadcast from loudspeakers in the city’s mosques.
“They know that Hama is not armed,” Mr. Arwany added, “that is why they launched this campaign. “They are cowards. They are coming here to kill us because they know they can.”
The Syrian government offered a very different account of the events, which was contested by everyone reached by phone in the city. It said dozens of gunmen had set up on rooftops and were “shooting intensively to terrorize citizens,” the Syrian state news agency SANA reported. It said insurgent groups had set fire to police stations, vandalized public and private property and set up roadblocks and barricades.
“Army units are removing the barricades and roadblocks set up by the armed groups at the entrance of the city,” the news agency reported.
The version of events echoed the government’s longstanding contention that it faces an armed uprising led by militant Islamists and backed by foreign countries. This time, it said, armed men carried guns and rocket-propelled grenades, though not a single weapon was seen in the streets when a New York Times reporter visited last month.
J. J. Harder, the spokesman for the American Embassy in Damascus, termed the government’s account “nonsense” and called Syrian officials “delusional.”
“They keep talking about armed gangs, but there is one armed gang in this country, and it is the Syrian government itself,” he said.
As the government pressed its assault on Hama, other units attacked Deir al-Zour, Syria’s fifth-largest city, in a region that produces most of the country’s gas and oil. The committee said at least 11 people were killed there Sunday. For days, the government had signaled a campaign against the city, one of Syria’s most restive and unpredictable, given the ties of the expanded clans that knit it together.
A leading clan figure there, Nawaf al-Bashir, was arrested Saturday, said Omar Idlibi, a committee spokesman, in a move sure to inflame the already angry populace.
Another assault was reported in the southwestern province of Dara’a, where the uprising began in mid-March, when security forces arrested and tortured a dozen youths for scrawling anti-government graffiti on walls in the provincial capital. The committee said six people had been killed in Harak, a town in the province.
“They are acting as though they not only lost control but also their conscience,” said Anwar Fares, an activist reached by phone in the city of Dara’a.
Despite activists’ contention that the military and security forces were overstretched and exhausted, Sunday’s bloody raids underlined the capacity of Mr. Assad’s government to deploy forces from one end of Syria to the other — Hama in the north, Dara’a in the south and Deir al-Zour in the east. But many residents have vowed to test the strength of the security forces by bringing even more protesters into the streets after nightly prayers during Ramadan, one of the holiest times in the Muslim calendar.
“The regime is trying to launch a pre-emptive attack before Ramadan, but can it occupy all of Syria?” asked a resident in Hama who gave his name as Abu Abdo.
A pressing question in the uprising is the extent of defections from the Syrian military, only a portion of which the government considers reliable. Its rank-and-file draws its numbers from the same constituency as the protests — the poor and disgruntled from a countryside that the government has neglected for years.
Persistent reports have come from Deir al-Zour that units have defected there. Sham, a Web site sympathetic to protesters, reported that some soldiers in Hama had deserted from the force assaulting the city on Sunday. It broadcast video of what it said were soldiers shaking hands with and kissing protesters in Hama, though it was impossible to verify.
Nada Bakri reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Anthony Shadid from Istanbul. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut.
This article, "Syrian Forces Renew Strike on Restive City of Hama," originally appeared in The New York Times.