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Assad forces resume shelling, fire on worshippers heading for mosques

Anti-government protesters in the Syrian city of Hama 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.

Monday 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?" one distraught resident cried on 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 the attacks had resulted in casualties, but no information was available on the number.

The current crackdown appears aimed at preventing protests from swelling during Ramadan.

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 United States and Europe, which expanded its sanctions against Syria, imposing asset freezes and travel bans against five more military and government officials.

Elsewhere, tens of thousands of Syrians in the central city of Homs, Damascus suburbs and areas of the south marched out of mosques after evening prayers chanting slogans of support for the people of Hama and calling for the downfall of the regime.

At Germany's request, the U.N. Security Council scheduled closed-door consultations on Syria late Monday.

In unusual criticism of the Assad regime, Russia voiced concern Monday over the loss of lives in Hama.

The Russian Foreign Ministry urged the Syrian government to stop violence immediately and give up provocations and repression.