Russia said Monday it was concerned by reports of bloodshed in the Syrian city of Hama and called for an end to the violence.
Rights activists said 80 civilians were killed in Sunday’s tank-backed assault in Hama , scene of a 1982 massacre. It was one of the bloodiest days of a five-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Tanks shelled a northeastern district of Hama on Monday, killing at least four civilians, two residents said.
“Moscow is seriously concerned by information about numerous casualties,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said. “The use of force against civilians and representatives of state structures is unacceptable and must cease.”
A U.S. official gave a blunt assessment.
“The authorities think that somehow they can prolong their existence by engaging in full armed warfare on their own citizens,” U.S. Press Attache J.J. Harder told Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined a growing international outcry over the violence.
“Chancellor Merkel condemns in the strongest of terms the Syrian government’s action against its own civilian population,” government spokesman Christoph Steegmans said.
“(She) explicitly urges President Assad to halt the violence against his own people immediately,” he added.
Security forces, dominated by Assad’s minority Alawite sect, had besieged the Sunni Muslim city of 700,000 for nearly a month before Sunday’s crackdown on the eve of Ramadan, a holy month when Muslims fast in daylight hours.
Many people flock to mosque prayers at night, occasions which protesters may use to launch more frequent protests.
In a letter to the military, Assad reiterated that Syria was facing a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife designed to “tear Syria into small statelets that compete to satisfy those who worked to slice them up.”
“All of Syria’s honorable people are sure that we will emerge stronger from the crisis,” Assad said. “They wanted to wreak sectarian strife that destroys everything. We managed to prevent sectarian strife and examine ourselves to find out the errors and treat them.”
The 1982 Hama massacre instilled such fear that few Syrians were ready to challenge Assad family rule openly until this year, when many were inspired by the largely peaceful popular uprisings that toppled Arab autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia.
The Muslim Brotherhood accused the Alawite elite of waging sectarian warfare on Sunnis by attacking Hama.
“Syria is witnessing a war of sectarian cleansing. The regime has linked its open annihilation with the crescent of Ramadan. It is a war on the identity and beliefs of the Syrian nation … on Arab Muslim Syria,” it said in a statement.
The Syrian leadership blames “armed terrorist groups” for most killings during the revolt, saying that more than 500 soldiers and security personnel have been killed.
The Syrian state news agency said the military entered Hama to purge armed groups that were terrorizing citizens, an account dismissed as “nonsense” by a U.S. diplomat in Damascus.
The agency said eight police personnel were killed while “confronting armed terrorist groups” in Hama.
Residents said tanks began pounding neighborhoods of the city after attacking from several directions in a dawn assault.
Footage posted on social media showed large parts of the city covered in smoke, and panic-stricken groups around dead or wounded people in the streets as gunfire rang out. Reuters could not independently verify the content of the videos.
Other footage purporting to be from the city of Homs showed crowds chanting: “Hama, we are with you until death, Deir al-Zor, we are with you until death.”
Residents said at least 11 civilians had been killed in a weekend crackdown in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor.
U.K. rules out military intervention
President Barack Obama said he was appalled by the Syrian government’s “horrifying” violence against its people in Hama and promised to work with others to isolate Assad.
“Syria will be a better place when a democratic transition goes forward,” Obama said in a statement.