Beirut: Syrian authorities kept the restive city of Hama under a blackout Thursday, cutting phone lines, Internet and electricity as part of a brutal, five-day-old crackdown on anti-government dissent. Activists expressed concern about worsening humanitarian conditions there, saying medical supplies and bread were in short supply even before the latest siege.
Security forces killed at least seven protesters in other parts of Syria overnight when they went out to demonstrate after special nighttime prayers for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, activists said. Hozan Ibrahim, of the Local Coordination Committees which tracks the crackdown, said up to 30 people may have been killed in Hama Wednesday based on reports from fleeing residents. But the reports could not be immediately verified.
Phones and Internet in Hama have been cut or severely hampered for at least two days. Electricity has been out or sporadic since Sunday. Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the London-based Observatory for Human Rights, said some 1,000 families have fled Hama in the past two days, most of them to the village of Mashtal Hilu west of Hama and al-Salamieh to the east.
The siege of Hama is part of a new government offensive to put down the country`s uprising against President Bashar Assad`s authoritarian rule. Now in its fifth month, the protests have been gaining momentum in defiance of the military crackdown.
Assad has sought to deal with the extraordinary revolt against his family`s 40-year-dynasty through deadly force, but has also acknowledged the need for reform.
On Thursday, he issued two legislative decrees that will allow the formation of political parties alongside the Baath Party and enable newly formed parties to run for parliament and local councils. Both draft bills were endorsed by Cabinet last month, and were key demands of the opposition movement. But opposition figures now dismiss the moves as maneuvering tactics and insist they want regime change.
On Wednesday, Syrian tanks stormed Hama under heavy shelling, taking over a main city square. Activists said authorities have effectively imposed a news blackout on the city by cutting cellular and land lines and Internet after reports of at least 100 killed in the first four days of the government offensive.
Phone calls to the city on Thursday were not going through. Abdul-Karim Rihawi, Damascus-based chief of the Syrian Human Rights League, said there was no information coming out from Hama on Thursday.
"A high number of casualties is expected from such a massive military operation," he said.
Ibrahim said there is concern about a deterioration in the humanitarian situation in Hama because medical supplies and bread were in short supply even before the latest crackdown and those shortages were growing more dire.
Rihawi said that elsewhere in Syria, seven people were killed by security forces Wednesday night. Two protesters were shot dead in the Damascus central neighborhood of Midan, three in the southern village of Nawa and one in the ancient city of Palmyra. An 11-year-old boy was also killed when security forces opened fire on a protest in Talbiseh, near Homs, he said.
He said more than 60 Syrian children have died since the start of the protests in March.
The Local Coordination Committees confirmed the deaths.
Since Ramadan started on Monday, Muslims have been thronging mosques for the special nightly prayers after breaking their dawn-to-dusk fast. The gatherings have turned into large anti-government protests that draw fierce military force to try to break them up.
Abdul-Rahman said military operations were also under way in the central city of Homs, where heavy machine guns and automatic gunfire was heard throughout the night in the Bab Sbaa and Qalaa districts. At least 27 people have been arrested in security raids, he said.
Amateur videos posted by activists online showed dozens of people in Damascus` district of Midan clapping their hands and shouting: "We don`t love you, Bashar!" and "Bashar, leave!" after emerging from the city`s Daqaq Mosque. The footage, which activists said was taken Wednesday night, then shows chaos breaking out as gunfire is heard, and the camera zooms onto vehicles with bullet holes and smashed windows.
Another video also posted overnight showed a large group of people in Hama`s Kfarzita district marching and shouting: "The people want to topple the regime."
The military offensive against Hama, 130 miles (210 kilometers) north of the capital Damascus, prompted the U.N. Security Council to act after months of deadlock.
A Council statement late Wednesday condemned Assad`s forces for attacking civilians and committing human rights violations. It called on Syrian authorities to immediately end all violence and launch an inclusive political process that will allow the Syrian people to fully exercise "fundamental freedoms ... including that of expression and peaceful assembly."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the statement "demonstrates the rising international concern at the unacceptable behavior of the regime and shows that President Assad is increasingly isolated."
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called the statement "a turning point in the attitude of the international community" and said Syria must now halt the attacks and implement reforms.
About 1,700 civilians have been killed since the uprising began in mid-March, according to tallies by activists.
Authorities in Syria blame the unrest on a foreign conspiracy and armed extremists seeking to destabilize Syria, as opposed to true reform-seekers.