msnbc.com news services
updated 8/3/2011 6:48:48 PM ET 2011-08-03T22:48:48

The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday condemned Syrian authorities for attacking civilians and committing widespread human rights violations, as Syria's government intensified its attack on the city at the center of protests.

After more than three months of deadlock and silence on the escalating violence in Syria, the council adopted a presidential statement condemning President Bashar Assad's crackdown.

The trigger was the military assault launched by the Syrian government over the weekend that sent troops and tanks into the besieged city of Hama. An activist who managed to leave the besieged city told Reuters that 40 people were killed by heavy machinegun fire and shelling by tanks in the al-Hader district north of the Orontes river on Wednesday and early Thursday.

Presidential statements require approval from all 15 council members. Lebanon, a neighbor and close ally of Syria, didn't block adoption of the statement, but it invoked a procedure last used 35 years ago and dissociated itself from the text.

The White House also hardened its stance against Assad on Wednesday, saying the United States viewed him as the cause of instability in the country.

"We do not want to see him remain in Syria for stability's sake and, rather, we view him as the cause of instability in Syria," Carney told a news briefing, toughening the U.S. position on the Syrian leader who has launched military assaults against unarmed protesters.

While repeating the Obama administration's call for Assad to stop the violence, release thousands of detainees and make way for a democratic transition, Carney said the White House was also looking for more ways to squeeze Damascus.

"We will certainly continue to look at ways to take further steps to put pressure on the regime to end its violence. And we think, frankly, that it's safe to say that Syria would be a better place without President Assad," he said.

In Hama, Syrian tanks occupied the main square Wednesday after heavy shelling of the city, residents said, taking control of the site of some of the largest protests against Assad.

Human rights campaigners say more than 90 people have been killed in Hama since Assad launched a military assault Sunday to regain control, triggering international condemnation and calls from U.S. senators for sanctions on Syria's energy sector.

Wednesday's push into the heart of the city coincided with the opening of the trial in Egypt of former president Hosni Mubarak, toppled by an uprising that shook the Arab world and inspired the protests against Assad.

"All communications have been cut off. The regime is using the media focus on the Hosni Mubarak trial to finish off Hama," one resident told Reuters by satellite phone from the city.

He said tanks, military units including paratroopers and special forces were seen moving to the central Orontes Square from the south, accompanied by militiamen known as "shabbiha."

Syrian authorities have expelled most independent media, making it difficult to verify witness accounts and official statements.

Residents earlier said tanks had advanced into central Hama on Wednesday after heavily shelling the city and occupied the main Orontes square, the site of some of the largest protests against Assad, who succeeded his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.

Snipers spread onto rooftops and into the nearby citadel. They said shelling concentrated on al-Hader district, large parts of which were razed in 1982 when forces loyal to Hafez al-Assada overran Hama to crush Islamist insurgents, killing many thousands of people.

Human rights campaigners say more than 90 people, not counting the latest toll, have been killed in Hama since Assad, from Syria's minority Alawite sect, launched a military assault on Sunday to crush dissent against his autocratic rule.

The assaults triggered international condemnation and calls from U.S. senators for sanctions on Syria's energy sector, concentrated in eastern Syria.

Last week tanks moved into the eastern provincial capital of Deir al-Zor and the town of Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq's Sunni heartland. Both town have also witnessed large pro-democracy protests.

"The security apparatus thinks it can wrap this uprising up by relying on the security option and killing as many Syrians as it thinks it will take," a diplomat in the Syrian capital said.

"Tanks are firing their guns at residential buildings in Hama and Deir al-Zor after the two cities were left for weeks to protest peacefully. This is the first time the regime is using tanks with such targeted ferocity," the diplomat said.

The official Syrian news agency said "armed terrorist groups" had abducted three oil-well guards in Deir al-Zor on Wednesday, and killed one policeman.

Authorities say the army had entered Hama to confront "terrorists" who were intimidating inhabitants. State television broadcast footage of armed men who it said had attacked security forces and government buildings in Hama.

A Syrian pharmacist who managed to talk with her family in Hama told Reuters that they had tried to flee but that the "shabbiha" were randomly shooting residents. Several buildings in Hama had caught fire from tank shelling and snipers were in position on rooftops in Orontes Square, she said.

The Local Coordination Committees grassroots activists' group said in a statement that the authorities were trying prevent any news emerging on the ferocity of the assault. The group said it could no longer contact its members in Hama.

"Communications have been totally cut off in Hama, together with water and electricity. There is a big movement of refugees trying to flee the city," the statement said.

This article includes reporting from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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