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Syrian troops keep attacking

Photo by Michael Buckelew

Photo by Michael Buckelew

BEIRUT -- Anti-government protesters in the Syrian city of Hama set up barricades and took up sticks and stones to defend themselves Monday after one of the bloodiest days so far in the regime's campaign to quell an uprising now in its fifth month.

The protesters vowed not to allow a repeat of 1982, when thousands of people were killed in Hama after President Bashar Assad's father ordered a massacre.

As evening fell, residents said Syrian tanks resumed intense shelling of the restive city and troops fired machine guns at worshippers about to head to mosques for special nighttime prayers on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Residents had just broken their daily dawn-to-dusk fast, and the shelling appeared aimed at preventing the mosque gatherings, fearing they would trigger large anti-government protests.

It was the second day of shelling of Hama and other cities. In attacks earlier in the day, four people were killed in Hama and three more were killed in other parts of the country, residents and rights groups said.

''It's a crime! Where is the world? Why doesn't anyone see?'' cried one distraught resident through the phone, the sound of gunfire heard clearly in the background. The residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said they were certain there were casualties, but there was no immediate word on numbers.

The current crackdown appears aimed at preventing protests from swelling during Ramadan. Muslims throng mosques during Ramadan for the special nightly prayers after breaking their daytime fast. The gatherings could then turn into large protests throughout the country.

Sunday's violence left 74 people dead throughout the country, 55 of them from Hama and neighboring villages, according to a statement issued by six Syrian rights groups.

The attacks drew harsh rebukes from the U.S. and Europe, which expanded its sanctions against Syria, imposing asset freezes and travel bans against five more military and government officials Monday.

''We find these violent attempts by the Syrian regime to target civilians on the eve of Ramadan to be despicable and abhorrent,'' said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner.

In Hama, many people were too frightened to venture out after the evening barrage of shellfire, but a few groups of people staged scattered protests in the city's main Assi square.