Beirut: The Syrian military tightened its suffocating siege on the city of Hama on Saturday in its drive to crush the main center of the anti-regime uprising in the country, even as the foreign minister promised that free
parliamentary elections would be held by the end of the year
in a gesture of reform.
Like previous reform promises, the new announcement is
unlikely to have much resonance with Syria`s opposition, which
says it has lost all confidence in President Bashar Assad`s
Tens of thousands of protesters marched in cities around
the country on Friday, met by gunfire from Syrian troops.
Activists said Saturday that 24 people were killed.
The four-year term of the current parliament expired
earlier this year and Assad is expected to set a date for new
legislative elections before the end of 2011.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem pledged to press ahead
with reforms and said the new parliament "will represent the
aspirations of the Syrian people."
"The ballot box will be the determining factor and it
will be up to the elected parliament to review adopted draft
bills to decide on them," he said during a meeting he held
with Arab and foreign ambassadors in Damascus.
But Syria was coming under increasing international
criticism over the bloody siege of Hama, launched on Sunday
after residents calling for Assad`s ouster took over the city
of 800,000 and barricaded it against regime forces.
Friday night, tanks shelled Hama, causing several
casualties, one resident said. He said there were reports that
a hospital was hit in the bombardment.
The resident sneaked out of Hama on Friday to try and get
supplies and spoke to a news agency by phone Saturday
from the city`s outskirts.
"I am trying to get back but it`s impossible, they`ve
tightened the siege even more, not even an ant can go in or
out today," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for
fear of reprisals.
Authorities have imposed a media blackout on Hama and the
reports could not be immediately confirmed. Electricity,
internet and phone lines in the city have been cut for seven
days, and residents have reported food and medical supplies
dwindling, amid frequent shelling and raids.
Rights group say at least 100 people have been killed,
while some estimates put the number as high as 250.
Syria`s government broadcast images of buildings and
empty rubble-strewn streets in Hama, claiming the military was
putting an end to an armed rebellion launched by "terrorists."
On Saturday, Gulf Arab countries broke their silence on
the bloodshed, calling for an immediate end to the violence
and for implementation of "serious" reforms in Syria.
In a statement posted on its website, the six-nation Gulf
Cooperation Council expressed deep concern and regret for "the
escalating violence in Syria and use of excess force."
Germany`s foreign minister cast doubt on Assad`s future.
"I don`t think that there can still be a political future
for Assad that is supported by the Syrian people," Guido
Westerwelle told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung,
the newspaper reported Saturday in a preview of an article for