AMMAN, Jul (Reuters) - Syrian tanks deployed at the entrances to the city of Hama Sunday but later pulled back, residents said, two days after it saw the largest protest against President Bashar al-Assad since an uprising began three months ago.
Tanks and armoured vehicles headed north after moving close to the city of 650,000 people. Tens of people were earlier arrested in neighborhoods on the edges of Hama and secret police patrols were seen in the city, they said.
“The regime is using scare tactics, but the people of Hama are not bowing,” one esident said, adding that tens of thousands of people assembled for a night rally at the main square on Sunday despite electricity cuts designed to hamper protests.
In a Damascus suburb that has also seen expanding protests against Assad’s rule, activists and a resident said police shot dead two protesters Sunday.
“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.
The suburb is home to thousands of refugees from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights live.
“It took every one by surprise because it was the first time the ‘amn’ (security police) fired at a demonstration in Hajar al-Aswad,” he added.
The Local Coordination Committee, a grassroots activists’ group, gave the name of the dead as Mutassem al-Daher and Mouaffaq Khalil.
The security forces’ presence had lessened in Hama since they killed at least 60 protesters in the city a month ago in one of the bloodiest days of the uprising against Assad.
Demonstrations have grown in numbers since, witnesses said, with at least 150,000 people assembling at a square Friday in a rally demanding the removal of Assad, whose father, the late Hafez al-Assad sent troops to the city in the 1982 to crush an Islamist led uprising. That attack killed up to 30,000 people.
Another resident, a shop owner who gave his name as Kamel, said security forces and gunmen loyal to Assad, known as ‘shabbiha’, fired rifles randomly early Sunday in Hama’s Mashaa district. He added that arrests concentrated on the areas around the football stadium and in Sabounia district.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, president of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed that tanks had withdrawn, saying any military assault on the city could spur Syrians to take to the streets across the country en masse.
“People in the hundreds of thousands protested peacefully in Hama Friday. The authorities do not have an excuse to say Hama is full of armed terrorist groups,” Abdelrahman told Reuters.
He was referring to statements by the authorities that military assaults on numerous cities, towns and villages in the last two months were in pursuit of Islamist and foreign backed gunmen terrorising the civilian population.
The 1982 assault on Hama, 210 km (130 miles) north of Damascus, was carried out by troops mostly from Syria’s Alawite minority commanded by Hafez al-Assad’s brother.
Bashar Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, has ruled the majority Sunni country since succeeding his father in 2000. He sacked the governor of Hama province, Ahmad Khaled Abdulaziz, Saturday.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Assad and his top officials in response to the crackdown, in which at least 1,300 civilians have been killed according to rights groups.
Neighboring Turkey has warned Assad against repeating “another Hama,” in reference to the 1982 massacre.
In Zurich, Swiss news agency SDA reported Sunday that Switzerland has blocked Syrian assets worth 27 million Swiss francs ($32 million).
Citing a Swiss newspaper report that the Swiss Secretariat for Economics (SECO) confirmed, the news agency said SECO declined to comment on whether Assad’s assets had been frozen. SECO could not immediately be reached by Reuters.
Additional reporting by Katie Reid; Editing by Angus MacSwan