BY NADA BAKRI AND ANTHONY SHADID, NY TIMES—
Syria’s state media broadcast stark images of the destruction in the besieged city of Hama for the first time on Friday, showing burnt buildings, makeshift barricades and deserted streets strewn with rubble, in footage that appeared designed to show that government forces had put down a rebellion in the city.
The images were unmistakably Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city and a focal point of the five-month-old uprising that has left President Bashar al-Assad’s leadership isolated and weakened. They suggested the military had retaken control of a city that, for two months, had wrested itself from under the government and enjoyed a measure of freedom unprecedented in four decades of authoritarian rule by the Assad family.
The reports by Syrian television and Sana, the official news agency, portrayed the army as Hama’s savior. The news appeared aimed at reinforcing the leadership’s message to internal opponents that they are regarded as armed insurrectionist gangs inspired by hostile foreign powers and will be dealt with accordingly. But the television footage of the wreckage in Hama also implicitly acknowledged that the violence there had been far more serious than Mr. Assad’s regime has until now been willing to publicly admit.
It also underlined a legacy of the assault: Hama was remarkably peaceful after security forces withdrew in June. Violence only erupted when the government, fearing the momentum the city might provide the uprising, began its ferocious assault on Sunday. Although government officials insist protesters were armed, not a single weapon was seen in the streets on a recent visit, an account confirmed by diplomats in their trips there. Barricades were set up, but only to block the return of the military and security forces.
“Today we are alive, but tomorrow we don’t know,” said a resident there who gave his name as Fadi. “The humanitarian situation is getting worse day by day.”
Government officials offered an altogether different version of events there, in reports from Damascus that appeared more and more to defy reality.
“Syrian Arab Army units are working to restore security, stability and normal life to Hama after armed terrorist groups perpetrated acts of sabotage and killing through setting up barricades, braking off roads, attacking and burning police stations, using different kinds of weapons,” according to Sana’s account of the Hama violence.
The Syrian accounts also said at least 20 soldiers had been killed in the fighting, but said nothing about civilian casualties. Activist groups reporting from Hama — the source of most information about the mayhem there since Syrian forces first besieged the city last weekend — have said at least 200 civilians have been killed by military shelling and snipers. They reported a new round of shelling on Friday.
The resident reached by phone said 200 tanks had entered the city before dawn, and that security forces were blocking residents from gathering in the city’s mosques.
“The government has given up its responsibilities and handed everything over to the security forces,” said Louay Hussein, a prominent opposition figure in Damascus. “They have lost their mind. They are acting without any strategic or political goal. The government’s armed gangs are roaming the streets, simply looking for vengeance.”
As the government pressed its crackdown on Hama, military and security forces appeared to prepare for another assault on Deir al-Zour, a city in eastern Syria knitted by the loyalties of extended clans where protests had gathered force for the past month. Those forces shelled the city on Thursday night into Friday morning, residents said.
An activist in Deir al-Zour who gave his name as Tarik said that thousands of soldiers and hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles were trying to divide the city into a smaller parts, a tactic the military has used elsewhere. Protesters still gathered in some squares, he said.
“We’re trying to block the roads,” said another resident, a grocer who gave his name as Mohammed. He put the numbers of protesters Friday in the tens of thousands and quoted demonstrators chanting, “We don’t want the army inside the cities.”
Some residents, also reached by phone, reported shortages of food and water.
Reports of defections have abounded for weeks now, especially in Deir al-Zour, but they seem too small to threaten Mr. Assad’s hold on the security apparatus.
Syrians elsewhere took to the streets after the first Friday noon prayers of the holy month of Ramadan in another bold challenge to the government’s crackdown. Activists reported tens of thousands of protesters joining “God is with us” marches in the streets of several cities, including Dara’a in the south and Homs, Syria’s second-largest city.
The Local Coordination Committees, which has sought to organize and document the protests, said that security forces killed 14 people Friday, 11 of them in the restive suburbs of Damascus, two in Homs and one in Dara’a, where the revolt began in March.
In some of the demonstrations, protesters chanted in support of Hama, a city with a special resonance in Syria. In 1982, Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, ordered the military to crush an Islamist uprising there, killing 10,000 and probably many more. Then, as now, journalists were unable to cover the events, largely blinding the world to the violence.
The Syrian media’s portrayal of what is happening in Hama came as activists reported a new round of shelling in the city overnight that they said was preventing food and medical supplies from entering residential areas, promoting shortages and raising fears among many that the death toll there could escalate dramatically.
Satellite connections offered one of the few remaining conduits to get information out of the besieged area, though some activists also said that the government was interfering with satellite communications as well.
Wissam Tarif, an activist with Avaaz, a human rights group, said that he spoke with a doctor in Hama who told him that the casualties have increased dramatically since Thursday. The doctor said that he and his colleagues had been triaging the wounded and dying because they faced a major shortage of medical supplies and equipment.
“The city is running out of everything,” Mr. Tarif said. He mentioned bread, food, baby formula and water.
International condemnation of Mr. Assad has intensified because of the repression in Hama, with blunt criticism from Syria’s historically close allies, Turkey and Russia. In Washington on Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused the Syrian leadership of responsibility for the deaths of more than 2,000 Syrians since the nationwide uprising began. She also reiterated the Obama administration’s position that Mr. Assad had “lost all legitimacy to govern the Syrian people.”
The Obama administration also expanded its punitive sanctions on Thursday against senior Syrian officials to include a wealthy confidante of the Assad family, Muhammad Hamsho, who is a member of Syria’s parliament, and his conglomerate, Hamsho International Group. The sanctions freeze any Hamsho assets under American jurisdiction and ban Americans from doing business with any Hamsho subsidiary.
Nada Bakri reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Anthony Shadid from Cairo. Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.