AMMAN Syrian troops stormed houses in Hama on Monday as thousands of people took to the streets shouting "God is greatest," in the city which saw huge protests last week against President Bashar al-Assad, residents said.
They said some of the soldiers and police who swept into Hama on Monday opened fire in residential neighborhoods and carried out arrests across the city.
Hama, scene of a bloody crackdown by Assad's father nearly 30 years ago, has witnessed some of the biggest demonstrations and worst violence of Syria's 14-week uprising, inspired by revolts across the Arab world.
One month ago security forces shot dead at least 60 protesters in Hama, activists said. The security presence later eased and last Friday an emboldened crowd of at least 150,000 people rallied in a central Hama square demanding Assad go, according to activists.
The next day Assad fired the provincial governor and on Monday residents said troops and police poured into Hama to carry out arrests.
"At least 30 buses carrying soldiers and security police entered Hama this morning. They are firing randomly in residential neighborhoods," one of the residents, a workshop owner who gave his name as Ahmad, said by telephone.
He said he saw dozens of soldiers surround a house in the Mashaa neighborhood and make arrests. Young men, some carrying stones, blocked roads leading to central neighborhoods with burning tyres and garbage containers.
"Forces are firing randomly at buildings," said a doctor in the city, adding that seven casualties had been brought to the Horani hospital and other wounded residents were being treated in a clinic.
Rami Abdelrahman, president of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Reuters that 250 people were arrested in neighborhoods across Hama.
"The regime could not stand the large peaceful protests and the fact that the governor did little to stop them. It has decided to subdue Hama one way or the other, starting with the storming we are seeing today," he said.
Authorities have banned most international media from operating in Syria since the outbreak of the protests in March, making it difficult to verify reports from activists and authorities.
Rights groups say Syrian security forces have shot dead at least 1,300 civilians across the country since the protests started and arrested over 12,000. Authorities say 500 police and soldiers have been killed by gunmen they also blame for most civilian deaths.
Alongside the military crackdown, Assad has promised a national dialogue with the opposition to discuss political reform in Syria, which has been under the iron rule of the Baath Party for nearly 50 years.
Many opposition figures reject dialogue while the killings and arrests continue. The United States said last week Assad was running out of time to allow a serious political process, and would otherwise face increasingly organised resistance.
Washington and the European Union have put sanctions on Assad and his top officials in response to the violence and last week the U.S. Treasury Department said it imposed sanctions on Syria's security forces for human rights abuses and against Iran for supporting them. Tehran denies backing Assad's crackdown.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a close ally of Assad who has grown more critical, said in May that "we do not want to see another Hama massacre" and warned the Syrian leader that it would hard to contain the consequences if it were repeated.
Assad's late father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years until his death in 2000, sent troops into Hama in 1982 to crush an armed Islamist uprising.
That attack killed many thousands, possibly up to 30,000, and one slogan constantly shouted by Hama protesters in the last several weeks was "damn your soul Hafez," a reminder of the scar still etched in the memory of the city of 650,000 people.
Abdelrahman, from the Syrian Observatory, said a major military assault on Hama now could "spur Syrians to take to the streets across the country en masse and result in total international isolation of the regime."
Friday's peaceful protest in the city showed that "authorities do not have an excuse to say Hama is full of armed terrorist groups," he said.
On Sunday activists and a resident said security police shot dead two protesters in a Damascus suburb that has seen expanding protests against Assad.
"It was a usual night demonstration when a hail of bullets hit. Many were also injured," the resident, who gave his name as Abu al-Nour, told Reuters by phone from the poor suburb of Hajar al-Aswad, where thousands of refugees from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights live.
"It took every one by surprise because it was the first time the security police fired at a demonstration in Hajar al-Aswad," he added.