AMMAN, Aug 4 Reuters) - Syrian troops killed at least 45 civilians in a tank assault to occupy the centre of the besieged city of Hama, residents said on Thursday, seeking to crush an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
Thousands of civilians were fleeing the city, a bastion of protest against 41 years of Assad family rule surrounded by a ring of steel of troops with tanks and heavy weapons.
"The sound of tank shelling and their heavy machineguns echoed in Hama all day. We fear many more martyrs. Most people in my neighbourhood have fled," said one resident in Sabounia district, a small business owner who did not want to be named.
"The shabbiha (militiamen loyal to Assad) are cleaning the streets near the university campus to stage a pro-Assad march tomorrow as if nothing is happening in Hama," he told Reuters by satellite phone.
Electricity and communications have been cut off and as many as 130 people have been killed in a four-day military assault since Assad, from Syria's minority Alawite sect, sent troops into the city on Sunday, residents and activists say.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington believed Assad's forces were responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 Syrians in their attacks on peaceful protesters.
Clinton repeated that the United States believed Assad had lost legitimacy in Syria and said Washington and its allies were working on strategies to apply more pressure beyond new sanctions announced earlier on Thursday.
Last week, tanks also moved into the eastern provincial capital of Deir al-Zor and the town of Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq. Both towns have seen large pro-democracy protests.
Activists said Syrians in their tens of thousands marched in cities and towns across the country after nightly Ramadan prayers demanding Assad's overthrow, in intensifying daily demonstrations during the Muslim fasting month.
Damascus residents said armed shabbiha militiamen surrounded worshippers at the Rifai mosque in Kfar Souseh district and security forces arrested tens of people after the prayers, known as 'tarawih', in the old Maydan quarter.
On Wednesday Assad's forces killed at least seven demonstrators after tarawih prayers across the country, witnesses and rights campaigners said.
"The security apparatus thinks it can wrap this uprising up by relying on the security option and killing as many Syrians as it thinks it will take," a diplomat in Damascus said.
"Tanks are firing their guns at residential buildings in Hama and Deir al-Zor after the two cities were left for weeks to protest peacefully. This is the first time the regime is using tanks with such targeted ferocity," the diplomat said.
In a sign that the assault on Hama and other Syrian cities may be galvanising the international community against Assad, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whose country had resisted U.N. condemnation of Syria, said Assad risked a sad fate if he failed to reconcile with his opponents.
His comments came a day after Russia, which has a naval base in Syria, backed a U.N. Security Council statement condemning "the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities."
The United States extended sanctions against Syria on Thursday to include Mohammad Hamsho, a prominent Syrian businessman and member of parliament who it said was a front for the interests of Assad and his brother Maher, who directly commands ultra-loyalist forces from the minority Alawite sect, the same sect as Assad, spearheading military assaults.
The move by the U.S. Treasury fell short of calls by Syrian dissidents and some U.S. senators to target Syria's oil and gas sector to put some muscle behind the sanctions, which have had little impact on Assad's tactics.
The European Union also agreed to further extend sanctions on Syria. Germany said it would ask the United Nations to send a special envoy to Syria to increase pressure on Assad and Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said Syria was increasingly isolated.
"Given the regime's cold-blooded violence against its own people, the front of countries holding their protective hand over the Syrian leadership is starting to crumble," he said.
In Hama, residents said tanks had advanced into the main Orontes Square, the site of some of the biggest protests against Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000. Snipers spread onto rooftops and into a nearby citadel.
An activist who managed to leave the city told Reuters that 40 people were killed by heavy machinegun fire and shelling by tanks in al-Hader district on Wednesday and early on Thursday.
The activist, who gave his name as Thaer, said five more people, including two children, were killed as they were trying to leave Hama by car on the al-Dhahirya highway.
MEMORIES OF 1982
Hama has been one of the main centres of protest against Assad, reviving memories of 1982 when his father sent troops to crush Islamist protests in the city, killing thousands of people and razing much of al-Hader district.
In Deir al-Zor, thousands of people have began fleeing Deir al-Zor, expecting a tank assault, after the authorities cut off wheat supplies from the city, said Rami Abdelrahman, president of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
Syrian authorities say the army has gone into Hama to confront armed groups trying to take control of the city. They say at least eight soldiers have been killed by gunmen.
The contrasting accounts from activists and state media are difficult to verify because Syria has barred most independent media since the beginning of the protests.
Rights groups said the lack of communication with the besieged city was alarming. There were also some reports that water supplies were blocked.
"Hama has been cut off. We're in the dark and of course we're very worried," said Human Rights Watch's Beirut-based senior Syria and Lebanon researcher, Nadim Houry.
Abdelrahman of the Observatory said 1,500 families managed to flee Hama in the last 48 hours, heading mainly to the east or the west of the besieged city. Other activists said authorities had blocked the road north towards the commercial hub of Aleppo and Turkey.
"We are talking about hundreds of families leaving Hama since yesterday by cars and pick-up trucks," said one activist in touch with the families that escaped.
Alongside the military crackdown, Assad has lifted a state of emergency in place for nearly 50 years and promised constitutional changes to open Syria up to multi-party politics, but human rights campaigners and Assad's opponents say the moves were largely on paper and did not alter the Syrian police state.
On Thursday he formally approved laws passed by the cabinet last week allowing the formation of political parties other than his ruling Baath Party and regulating elections to parliament, which has so far been a rubber-stamp assembly.
A new report by the Syrian National Human Rights Organisation, headed by dissident Amman Qarabi, said a campaign of arbitrary arrests and abductions by secret police across Syria has intensified in the last few days, with over 12,000 people in jail since the uprising.
The report said two brothers, Wael and Bassel Skaf, were arrested two days ago after they took part in a demonstration demanding Assad's overthrow in the resort town of Zabadani near the border with Lebanon after nightly Ramadan prayers.
"The scale of arrests in Zabadani were unprecedented," Qarabi said. "The Skaf brothers are Christian. Their arrest contradicts the regime's argument about militant Muslims terrorising Zabadani."