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Assad forces fire on protesters across Syria

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian tanks shelled the city of Hama after Ramadan prayers on Tuesday, residents said, on the third day of an armored assault to crush some of the largest street protests against President Bashar al-Assad in a five-month uprising.

Government security forces also fired at pro-democracy protesters in other towns across Syria.

Human rights campaigners said the assaults by Assad’s forces across Syria on Monday and Tuesday had killed at least 27 civilians, including 13 in Hama, where troops and tanks began an operation to regain control on Sunday.

That brought the total to about 137 dead throughout Syria in the past three days, 93 of them in Hama, according to witnesses, residents and rights campaigners.

As foreign powers dithered over what they could do to end the bloodshed, Syria’s old ally Russia said it would not oppose a U.N. resolution to condemn the violence.

Russia had long resisted any such measure by the U.N. Security Council, where it holds a veto, and its shift indicated growing international revulsion at the Assad government’s repression of the protests.

The plight of Hama -- where thousands were killed in 1982 when security forces crushed an anti-government uprising -- has prompted many Syrians to stage solidarity marches since the start of Ramadan.

But Assad’s tough response suggests he will resist calls for democratic change that have swept Syria and much of the Arab world this year.

Tuesday night’s shelling followed the pounding of residential areas across Hama on Monday night. The renewed assault concentrated on the eastern Rubaii and al-Hamidiya neighborhoods, the Aleppo road in the north and the eastern Baath district, two residents said.

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A crowd which tried to rally in the central Alamein neighborhood after prayers marking the end of the daytime fast came under rifle fire by Assad’s forces.

There were no immediate reports of casualties. Rights campaigners earlier said five civilians were killed on Tuesday as tanks thrust further into the central Syrian city of 700,000.

Elsewhere, dozens of people were wounded 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 ‘amn’ (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 living the suburb, 30 km (20 miles) from the occupied Golan Heights.

Residents said tanks first entered Mouadhamiya on Monday, killing two protesters, including a 16-year-old boy, Hassan Ibrahim Balleh, whose funeral was held earlier on Tuesday.

A brief riot appeared to have broken out late on Monday at Hama’s main prison. Two shabbiha militia buses were seen heading there at night and smoke rose from the compound as the militiamen shouted “God, Syria, Bashar, only” from inside.

State news agency SANA said “hundreds of masked gunmen on motorbikes” had set fire to the main law court in Hama on Monday afternoon and had also vandalized much of the building.

SANA 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.

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Syria has incurred international opprobrium for its harsh measures but need not fear the kind of foreign military intervention that NATO launched to support rebels in Libya.

The senior U.S. military officer called for a swift end to violence in Syria, but only diplomatic pressure was in view.

“There’s no indication whatsoever that...we would get involved directly with respect to this,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Baghdad.

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Consultations at the Security Council on Monday failed to produce agreement on adopting a Western-backed draft resolution condemning Syria or settling for a less binding statement.

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s Middle East and North Africa Department Chief, Sergei Vershinin, said his country was not “categorically” against adopting a U.N. resolution on Syria.

“If there are some unbalanced items, sanctions, pressure, I think that kind of pressure is bad because we want less bloodshed and more democracy,” he added.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad urged India to ignore Western “propaganda” during its month-long presidency of the Security Council, which began on Monday.

“What we expect India to do is not to allow Western countries to use the U.N. as a forum to support terrorism, to support extremism and to support the killings of innocent people,” Mekdad told India’s CNN-IBN television channel.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights warned Syrian authorities that those who had violated human rights must be brought to account.

“There is a need for an international, transparent, independent and prompt investigation into the violence, the killings, the excessive use of force, the arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment and torture that the people of Syria have been subjected to,” Navi Pillay said in a statement.

Italy recalled its ambassador from Syria in protest at the “horrible repression of the civilian population” and urged other European Union members to do the same.

The EU formally added five more Syrian officials to an existing list of 29 individuals headed by Assad, whom the 27-nation bloc has targeted with asset freezes and travel bans.

Additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Moscow, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Catherine Hornby in Rome, Adrian Croft in London, Phil Stewart in Baghdad, Henry Foy in Mumbai and Patrick Worsnip in New York; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Angus MacSwan