Assad intensifies crackdown in bid to head off any Ramadan uprisings

Syrian forces intensified their crackdown yesterday in an effort to keep the anti-government uprising from escalating during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The worst violence was in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, where troops stepped up a siege that had already been going on for days. At least 42 people were killed in a raid on the city that began before dawn, said Abdul-Karim Rihawi, the Damascus-based chief of the Syrian Human Rights League and Ammar Qurabi, who heads the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria.

Amateur video posted online by activists showed what it said were parts of Deir el-Zour with the sound of heavy gunfire and prayers blaring from loudspeakers. Another video showed Syrian troops on a hill as they positioned an anti-aircraft gun.

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"Humanitarian conditions in the city are very bad because it has been under siege for nine days," an activist in the city said by phone. "There is lack of medicine, baby formula, food and gasoline. The city is totally paralysed."

The attack on Deir el-Zour is part of the latest phase of the government crackdown that began a week ago, just before the start of Ramadan when many Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, then eat festive meals and gather in mosques for special nightly prayers. The government has been trying to prevent the large mosque gatherings from turning into a new wave of anti-government protests, like those that have been sweeping the country since mid-March.

The government's crackdown has left more than 1,700 dead, according to activists and human rights groups. President Bashar al-Assad's regime disputes the toll and blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest.

The central city of Hama had been the focus of the crackdown for most of the past week, though Deir el-Zour has also been under siege. In Hama, an official at Hourani Hospital reported that eight newborns died in their incubators on Wednesday when electricity was cut in the city, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The military attacks also spread yesterday to the central town of Houleh in Homs province, about 30 miles south of Hama and 200 miles east of Deir el-Zour. Rihawi said at least ten were killed in Houleh while Mr Qurabi said the toll was 17.

Both Houleh and Deir el-Zour have witnessed intense protests against President Assad since the uprising began. Deir el-Zour is the capital of an oil-rich province by the same name, but the region is among the country's poorest and has been hit by drought in the past years. It is inhabited by Arab tribes that extend into Iraq, and Syrian authorities have said they thwarted attempts by Iraqis to smuggle arms from Iraq into Syria.In Hama, state-run news agency SANA said troops removed all barriers and road-blocks in the main streets, but continued "to chase remains of terrorists" who took positions in two neighbourhoods.

Turkey, which borders Syria, said yesterday it would send its foreign minister to Damascus on Tuesday to deliver a strong message condemning the crackdown on the protesters. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country's patience was running thin and that Turkey could not remain a bystander to the violence.