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Amman - Syrian tanks surrounded Hama on Tuesday, residents and activists said, threatening a large-scale assault on the city after the biggest protests against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
Hundreds of youths blocked roads leading to the city's main residential neighborhoods with garbage containers, wood and metal to try to prevent a possible advance. Inhabitants joined in their shouts of "God is greatest," from balconies and rooftops, residents said.
Tanks and armored vehicles moved overnight to the edges of the city, including 30 seen near a flyover on a road leading west, they said, a day after hundreds of troops and security police entered Hama at dawn in buses, killing at least three people in raids on main neighborhoods.
Hama, scene of a bloody crackdown by Assad's father nearly 30 years ago, has witnessed some of the biggest demonstrations and highest death tolls in Syria's 14-week uprising, inspired by revolts across the Arab world.
"Assad may wait to see whether large-scale protests in Hama continue. He knows that using military aggression against peaceful demonstrations in a symbolic place like Hama would lose him support even from Russia and China," Syrian activist Mohammad Abdallah told Reuters from exile in Washington.
The two countries have opposed a United Nations Security Council resolution proposed by the West against Syria, helping Assad withstand mounting international isolation.
Abdallah said using tanks to attack Hama would "totally discredit" a promise by Assad to seek dialogue with his opponents. Troops and armor were already assaulting villages and towns in the Jabal-al-Zawya region, north of Hama, which had also seen large protests against Assad's 11-year rule, he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said tanks stormed the town of Kfar Nubbul early on Tuesday "without meeting a single shot in the town that has seen peaceful protests since the beginning of the uprising."
One month ago, security forces shot dead at least 60 protesters in Hama, activists said. The security presence later eased and last Friday a crowd of at least 150,000 people rallied in a central Hama square demanding Assad go, according to activists.
The following day, Assad sacked the provincial governor and on Monday residents said troops and police poured into Hama to carry out arrests.
The three people killed by the security forces included a 13-year-old boy and a man whose body had been dumped in the Orontes river, a doctor in Hama said. Residents said some of the soldiers and police opened fire in residential neighborhoods and carried out arrests across the city.
Young men, some carrying stones, blocked roads leading to central neighborhoods with burning tires and garbage containers, they added.
Rami Abdelrahman, president of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Reuters that at least 250 people were arrested across Hama on Monday.
"The regime could not stand the large, peaceful protests and the fact that the governor did little to stop them. It has decided to subdue Hama one way or the other," he said.
The authorities have banned most international media from operating in Syria since the protests began in March, making it difficult to verify reports from activists and authorities.
Rights groups say Syrian security forces have shot dead at least 1300 civilians across the country since the protests started and arrested over 12,000, with several troops and police officers killed for refusing to fire at civilians. Authorities say 500 police and soldiers have been killed by gunmen, who they blame for most civilian deaths.
Assad has promised a national dialogue with the opposition to discuss political reform in Syria, which has been under the iron rule of the Baath Party for nearly 50 years.
Many opposition figures reject dialogue while the killings and arrests continue. The United States said last week Assad was running out of time to allow a serious political process, and would otherwise face increasingly organized resistance.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, an ally of Assad who has grown more critical, said in May: "We do not want to see another Hama massacre" and warned the Syrian leader that it would be hard to contain the consequences if it were repeated.
Assad's father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years until his death in 2000, sent troops into Hama in 1982 to crush an Islamist-led uprising in the city, where the Fighting Vanguard, the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, made its last stand.
That attack killed many thousands, possibly up to 30,000, and one slogan constantly shouted by Hama protesters in the last several weeks was "damn your soul Hafez," a reminder of the scar still etched in the memory of the city of 650,000 people.