Amman: Syrian tanks occupied the main square in central Hama Wednesday after heavy shelling of the city, residents said, taking control of the site of some of the largest protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
Human rights campaigners say more than 90 people have been killed in Hama since Assad launched a military assault Sunday to regain control, triggering international condemnation and calls from US senators for sanctions on Syria`s energy sector.
Wednesday`s push into the heart of the city coincided with the opening of the trial in Egypt of former president Hosni Mubarak, toppled by an uprising which shook the Arab world and inspired the protests against Assad.
"All communications have been cut off. The regime is using the media focus on the Hosni Mubarak trial to finish off Hama," one resident told Reuters by satellite phone from the city.
He said tanks, military units including paratroopers and special forces were seen moving to the central Orontes Square from the south, accompanied by militiamen known as `shabbiha`.
Residents said shelling concentrated on al-Hader district, large parts of which were razed in 1982 when Assad`s late father President Hafez al-Assad crushed an armed Islamist uprising, killing thousands.
The plight of Hama has prompted many Syrians to stage solidarity marches since the start of the holy month of Ramadan earlier this week.
But Assad`s response suggests he will resist calls for change that have swept Syria and much of the Arab world, and has led to Western calls for tougher international measures.
"The United States should impose crippling sanctions in response to the murder of civilians by troops under the orders of President Assad," US Senator Mark Kirk said Tuesday.
Kirk, a Republican, was introducing legislation in Washington to target firms that invest in Syria`s energy sector, purchase its oil or sell gasoline.
His bill was also sponsored by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and independent Senator Joseph Lieberman, who said it was time to push for "a democratic transition that reflects the will of the Syrian people."
Washington says Assad has lost legitimacy and has imposed sanctions on the president and his top officials, but has stopped short of directly calling on him to leave office as it did to Mubarak and Libya`s Muammar Gaddafi.
Human rights campaigners said the assaults by Assad`s forces across Syria Monday and Tuesday had killed at least 27 civilians, including 13 in Hama. That brought the total to about 137 dead throughout Syria since Sunday, 93 of them in Hama, according to witnesses, residents and rights campaigners.
The UN Security Council negotiated for a second day on Tuesday over a Western-backed draft resolution condemning Syria, before adjourning until Wednesday.
Diplomats said significant differences remained over the text and it had not been decided whether the end result should be a resolution or a less weighty council statement.
Russia and some other countries are pushing for what they say is a more balanced text that would blame both Syrian authorities and the opposition for the violence, but Western nations say the two sides cannot be equated.
Syria`s state news agency SANA said "hundreds of masked gunmen on motor bikes" had set fire to the main law court in Hama Monday afternoon and vandalized much of the building.
It said "armed terrorist groups" had killed eight policemen in Hama. The government blames such groups for most killings in the five-month-old revolt, saying more than 500 soldiers and security personnel have died. Opposition and human rights groups say more than 1,600 civilians have been killed.
Dozens of people were wounded Tuesday when demonstrators demanding the toppling of Assad in the western Damascus suburb of Mouadhamiya, the northeastern city of Hasaka and the port city of Latakia came under fire after the nightly prayers, residents said.
"Ten buses full of security entered Mouadhamiya. I saw 10 youths falling down as I was running away from the gunfire. Hundreds of parents are in the streets looking for their sons," said one witness in Mouadhamiya, 30 km (20 miles) from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
In the eastern Damascus suburb of Erbin, a witness told Reuters that one mourner was killed Tuesday when Assad`s forces fired at a funeral for five residents shot dead by security forces there Monday.