Gun Battles Continue in Hama

Violence continues in the central Syrian city of Hama where 23 people have been killed in clashes with Assad's regime; activists call for boycotts.

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Gabe Kahn., | updated: 18:09

Protesters in Hama
Protesters in Hama
Israel news photo: Flash 90

Syrian activists Thursday issued a call over the Internet to boycott merchants who support President Bashar Assad, al-Quds al-Arabi reported. The call also implored employees working for such merchants to strike.

Activists encouraged the citizens to "hear the sound of their conscience" and "boycott the regime's economy" as they try to organize once-a-week strikes throughout Syria.

The call comes as violence continues unabated in Syria as protesters hurled stones and set roadblocks of burning tires ablaze in hopes of denying Assad's forces access to the key central city of Hama.

Earlier, dozens of families fled Hama fearing a full-scale crackdown by Assad's troops, where 23 protesters have been killed by gunmen loyal to Assad who witnesses said fired indiscriminately into the crowds.

Witnesses added that young men are keeping watch on the streets and rooftops — hollering and calling out "God is Great!" as a warning sign when they suspected security officials were trying to sneak into the city.

"It's like Tarzan, they call out like Tarzan," said one witness, who spoke with al-Quds on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals.

Some tanks withdrew from an entrance to the city on Thursday, but activists said they did not know what the government strategy is. Water and electricity to the city was cut on Wendesday, leading some to believe Assad plans a long-term siege. Still, residents were nervous about a repeat of the 1982 assault, witnesses reported.

Hama holds deep symbolism for those opposed to the rule of the Assad family. In 1982, the late Hafez Assad ordered troops to crush a rebellion by Islamist forces, killing between 10,000 and 25,000 people.

"I don't think Syrian forces would do anything so stupid — because of the symbolism of Hama and the massacre," a local activist told the media by telephone. "Still, there's nothing that can be ruled out."

Today it has again become a center of resistance for the now four-month-old uprising and has turned into a Gordian Knot for Assad's government. A major offensive could make the city a fresh rallying cry for the opposition, but Assad also wants to stave off a repeat of last Friday's stunning mass rally, when an estimated 300,000 protesters called for his ouster.

Meanwhile, two widely respected Syrian opposition leaders said they would not participate in an upcoming government-held meeting on Sunday in Damascus to discuss reforms.

Anwar al-Bunni and Michel Kilo said the government had halted its violent crackdown for dialogue to have a chance at success.

An estimated 1,400 civilians and 350 members of the security forces have been killed since demonstrations erupted in March.