Shooting erupts in Syrian city ahead of Arab visit
BEIRUT (Reuters) - At least seven people were wounded on Wednesday in the Syrian city of Hama when security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse a protest against President Bashar al-Assad, just a day before a visit by Arab peace monitors, a rights group said.
Live pictures on al Jazeera television showed gunfire and black smoke rising above a street in Hama as dozens of protesters chanted: "Where are the Arab monitors?"
Arab League monitors checking if Syria is ending its violent crackdown on popular unrest are due to visit Hama on Thursday. In its footage, al Jazeera showed one man bleeding from the neck as others shouted in the background.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the protesters were heading towards Orontes square in the city centre for a sit-in at the symbolic location where demonstrations were crushed earlier this year.
Security forces were not visible in the Jazeera footage. Unarmed protesters, some masked, were heard shouting "Assad forces are shooting us." The protesters then began chanting: "Freedom for ever" and "We will have our revenge on you Bashar."
Reuters could not verify the details as Syria has banned most foreign media from the country.
Hama, 240 km (150 miles) north of Damascus, has particular resonance for Syrians. The city was the site of the biggest massacre in the country's modern history.
Troops overran Hama in 1982 to put down the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which made its last stand there. Up to 30,000 people were killed, many of them killed in an army bombardment or executed in the streets by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad's' father, the late Hafez al-Assad. Parts of its old city were razed to the ground.
Twenty-nine years later Hama demonstrators demanding the overthrow of Bashar still revile the memory of his father, who died in 2000 after ruling Syria for three decades.
In the Jazeera footage, the protesters began cursing Hafez's soul immediately after the gunfire was heard, before rushing to hide in alleyways.
A few looked out to shout a defiant freedom call before disappearing into hiding again. The shooting intensified, then one man shouted out that snipers were now operating in the area. Dozens of men squeezed themselves in an alley, chanting anti-Assad slogans.
"There is no turning back from the revolution," they shouted.
Hama was among the hardest hit cities in an escalation of military attacks against urban centers where anti-Assad protests had been held.
In August, tanks attacked Hama for ten days, provoking Arab and Western outrage, after weeks of protests that drew hundreds of thousands of people to Orontes Square. Authorities said the operation was necessary to cleanse the city of "terrorists" according to the wishes of Hama inhabitants.
On Wednesday, part of an Arab League team went to a flashpoint area in the city of Homs but some of their planned tour was blocked when gunfire erupted, activists said.
Residents of Homs's Baba Amr neighborhood initially refused to cooperate when the monitors arrived with an army escort and the team withdrew. But activists said a smaller group of monitors returned without the officer and were escorted by residents and activists on a tour of the turbulent district.
But the monitors could not enter an area where residents said they believed detainees were being hidden because gunfire erupted. It was not clear where the shooting came from.
"Residents were accompanying the team to the area to show them where they believe detainees are being held when suddenly there was gunfire near the checkpoint," said Rami Abdelrahman, of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)