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Syrian forces seize square in Hama, cut off utilities

Syrian tanks stormed Hama under heavy shelling Wednesday, taking over a main square in the restive city and cutting off electricity, water and phone lines on the fourth day of an offensive. The U.N. Security Council added its weight to the growing international outcry, condemning the attacks on civilians.

Opposition figures and activists accused the regime of striking hard as world and media attention was distracted by the beginning of the trial in Egypt of former President Hosni Mubarak.

"Hama is being collectively punished for its peaceful protests calling for the downfall of [President] Bashar Assad," said Suheir Atassi, a prominent pro-democracy activist, who like many other Syria-based activists has gone largely into hiding and spoke to the Associated Press via email. "The Syrian regime is committing crimes against humanity. Where are the free people of the world?"

At least three tanks took up positions in Hama's central Assi square, which in recent weeks had been the site of carnival-like demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of protesters calling for the downfall of Assad's regime.

Hama, a religiously conservative city about 130 miles north of the capital with a history of dissent, had largely fallen out of government control since June as residents turned on the regime and blockaded the streets against encroaching tanks.

But Syrian security forces backed by tanks and snipers launched a ferocious military offensive that left bodies in the streets Sunday, tightening their siege of Hama and sending residents fleeing for their lives. The death toll since Sunday has reached about 100, but the exact figure is difficult to verify.

Activists said residents continued to leave Hama but were being hampered by gunfire and random shelling from security forces and soldiers.

"A building and many houses have collapsed due to the shelling," the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group, said.

About 1,700 civilians have been killed since the largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime began in mid- March, according to tallies by activists.

The assault on Hama has drawn a fresh wave of international condemnation, including at the Security Council. After more than three months of deadlock, the council adopted a statement Wednesday condemning Assad's crackdown on anti-government protesters and widespread human rights violations.

The statement carried less weight than a resolution, but it still becomes part of the council's record.

The vote, which required approval by all 15 council members, put Lebanon in a difficult position. Syria long dominated its neighbor to the west and remains influential with some Lebanese politicians -- including the current government -- and with the powerful Hezbollah militant group that it supports.

Instead of blocking adoption of the U.N. statement, Lebanon invoked a procedure last used 35 years ago and dissociated itself from the text.

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