BEIRUT (AP) - The Syrian army raided cities across the country before dawn Sunday, killing at least 34 people - most of them in the flashpoint city of Hama where a barrage of shelling and gunfire left bodies scattered in the streets, activists and residents said.
The government is escalating its crackdown on protests calling for President Bashar Assad's ouster ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts Monday in Syria. Demonstrations are expected to swell during Ramadan as the protesters and government forces try to tip the balance in a remarkably resilient uprising that began in mid-March.
Having sealed off the main roads into Hama almost a month ago, army troops in tanks pushed into the city before daybreak Sunday in a coordinated assault. Residents shouted "God is great!" and threw firebombs, stones and sticks at the tanks. The crackle of gunfire and thud of tank shells echoed across the city, and clouds of black smoke drifted over rooftops.
"It's a massacre, they want to break Hama before the month of Ramadan," an eyewitness who identified himself by his first name, Ahmed, told The Associated Press by telephone from Hama, where at least 23 people were killed Sunday.
Hospitals were overwhelmed with casualties and were seeking blood donations, he said.
During Ramadan, Muslims throng mosques for special night prayers after breaking their daily dawn-to-dusk fast. The gatherings could trigger intense protests throughout the predominantly Sunni country and activists say authorities are moving to ensure that does not happen.
Other raids were reported in southern Syria and in the suburbs of the capital Damascus. In the neighborhood of al-Joura in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, soldiers in tanks fired machine guns, killing at least seven people, activists said.
In the village of al-Hirak in the southern province of Daraa, residents said security forces killed four people after opening fire early Sunday on residents as people ventured into the streets to buy bread.
A resident who gave his name as Abu Mohammed said more than 40 were wounded and 170 detained in house-to-house arrests.
He said some soldiers defected to the protesters after having refused orders to shoot at people.
The reports could not be independently verified because Syria has banned most foreign media and restricted coverage.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the attacks against civilians were "all the more shocking" on the eve of Ramadan and appeared to be part of a "coordinated effort to deter Syrians" from protesting in advance of the Muslim holy month.
"President Bashar is mistaken if he believes that oppression and military force will end the crisis in his country. He should stop this assault on his own people now," Hague said in London.
A spokesman for The Local Coordination Committees, which organizes and monitors anti-government protests in Syria, said the group has the names of 23 civilians who died in Sunday's onslaught on Hama.
Omar Idilbi says the number is likely to be much higher as many of the dead have yet to be identified.
The London-based Observatory for Human Rights, quoting hospital officials in Hama, says the number of deaths could be as high as 45. A resident in Hama gave the same number, but the figure could not be independently confirmed.
An activist and Hama resident who identified himself as Saleh Abu Yaman said some soldiers had defected and were fighting against troops loyal to the regime. He said snipers had taken up position on the rooftops of government buildings in the city.
Another resident said the city had been expecting an assault after security troops and pro-government thugs started streaming into the city overnight.
Residents set up sand and stone barricades to try and keep troops out, and set fire to tires.
An estimated 1,600 civilians have died in the crackdown on the largely peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad's regime since the uprising began. Most were killed in shootings by security forces on anti-government rallies.
Hama, about 130 miles (210 kilometers) north of the capital Damascus, has become one of the hottest centers of the demonstrations, with hundreds of thousands demonstrating every week in its central Assi Square.
In early June, security forces shot dead 65 people there, and since then it has fallen out of government control, with protesters holding the streets and government forces ringing the city and conducting overnight raids.
The city has a history of dissent against the Assad dynasty. In 1982, Assad's late father, Hafez Assad, ordered his brother to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement. The city was sealed off and bombs dropped from above smashed swaths of the city and killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people, rights groups say.
The real number may never be known. Then, as now, reporters were not allowed to reach the area.