BEIRUT — Demonstrators took to the streets across Syria on Friday to pay homage to an earlier generation of revolutionaries — Islamic activists crushed 30 years ago in the city of Hama by the government of the late President Hafez Assad.
Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported Syrian forces killed 200 people and wounded hundreds in a barrage of shelling early Saturday in Homs in an offensive that appears to be the bloodiest episode in the nearly 11-month-old uprising, activists said.
The offensive was reported in Homs, which has been one of the main flashpoints of opposition to the regime during the uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Two main opposition groups, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, told the AP the death toll was more than 200 people. More than half of the killings — about 140 — were reported in the Khaldiyeh neighborhood.
“This is the worst attack of the uprising, since the uprising began in March until now,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Observatory, which tracks violence through contacts on the ground.
The reports could not be independently confirmed.
The collective slogan, hoisted on banners and repeated in chants, for Friday’s demonstrations was “Hama, forgive us,” a reference to the city where, human rights activists say, Syrian forces in February 1982 slaughtered more than 10,000 people and flattened much of the old city. It was the brutal denouement of a crackdown targeting the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.
The Islamist group had waged a bloody campaign of assassinations and guerrilla war against the secular regime of the elder Assad. The Hama massacre effectively routed the Islamist resistance.
The subject of the notorious massacre has been taboo in Syria for years, but the episode has become a periodic rallying cry during the 10-month-plus rebellion against President Bashar Assad, who succeeded his father.
In Hama, anti-government activists said, protesters spread red paint — symbolizing the blood of those killed 30 years ago — in the streets and poured it into the Orontes River.
“I myself feel proud today,” said one Hama resident reached by telephone, who added that the stigma of 1982 had long haunted the city’s people. “Before, I was scared to say I was from Hama, scared to be accused of being a terrorist,” said the activist, who for security reasons gave his name only as Joseph.
But the evocation of Hama can cut different ways in the complex context of today’s rebellion in Syria. The Assad regime has portrayed the current revolt as a Muslim Brotherhood-hatched uprising of religious militants — that is, a kind of reprise of the ‘82 unrest crushed by Hafez Assad.
An Islamist takeover is a chilling prospect for Christians and other minorities in Syria, where Sunni Muslims are in the majority. Much of Bashar Assad’s support comes from minority communities, including his own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
While hailing the “martyrs” of 1982, today’s anti-government activists insist that the current rebellion is an all-inclusive movement that seeks a democratic government in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Organizers deny a sectarian agenda and accuse the Assad regime of stoking sectarian tensions.
Still, the uprising seems rooted largely in a Sunni Muslim community that has chafed for years under the control of Assad’s Alawite sect, which dominates much of the military and security services.
In Homs, the beleaguered rebel stronghold south of Hama, opposition advocates said several thousand people joined protests Friday. “We should remember them,” said one activist on the phone, speaking of those killed in Hama in 1982.
Videos posted online suggested many protesters heeded activists’ request that they wear black in solidarity with those killed 30 years ago.
But early Saturday, opposition activists reported that government forces had launched a large-scale assault on the Homs neighborhood of Khaldiyeh, possibly resulting in “dozens” killed, reported Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite news service. There was no independent confirmation of the death toll.
Opposition reports indicated that at least 28 people were killed Friday as clashes continued between security forces and armed rebels, including defectors from Assad’s military.
The official government news agency reported that two children were killed and a third injured when a “terrorist” bomb exploded in northern Idlib province, another hotbed of resistance to Assad’s rule. The government reported eight “terrorists” were killed in clashes in Homs province, where an army colonel was also killed.
The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have died since the rebellion in Syria began in March. The government says more than 2,000 security personnel have been killed.
Meanwhile, Russia denied reports Friday that a “secret deal” had been reached on a revised United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria. Russia has vowed to block a resolution backed by the Arab League and Western nations, including the United States, condemning the Assad regime and calling on Syrian President Bashar Assad to turn over power to a deputy who would organize a democratic transition.
Backers of the Arab League plan had hopes, after two days of council negotiations, that Moscow might endorse the resolution. But Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said in Moscow that changes added this week to water down the resolution were “not enough for us,” the official Interfax news service reported.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is to discuss the resolution Saturday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a high-level international meeting in Munich, Germany. Diplomats said a Security Council vote could come soon, perhaps as early as this weekend.
Associated Press reporter Elizabeth Kennedy in Beirut and Tribune Washington Bureau staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.