The United States racheted up the pressure on Syria on Thursday, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying the goverment of President Bashar Assad was responsible for more than 2,000 deaths in its crackdown on protesters.
The U.S. government announced new sanctions on Syria, and Clinton told a press conference that the U.S. and its allies were working on strategies to apply even more pressure.
The action came as Syria sharply escalated a military campaign aimed at ending an uprising against Assad. At least 45 civilians were killed in a tank assault to occupy the city of Hama, the center of the resistance, an activist said on Thursday.
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 al-Hader district north of the Orontes river on Wednesday and early on Thursday.
The activist, who gave his name as Thaer, said five more people from the Fakhri and Assa'ad families, including two children, were killed as they were trying to leave Hama by car on the al-Dhahirya highway.
Separately, an opposition group reported via email that "30 martyrs fell due to the heavy bombardment and shootings which the city suffered" on Wednesday. The Local Coordination Committee said the victims were buried in the public parks.
The reports could not be verified. Syrian authorities have expelled most independent media, making it difficult to confirm witness accounts and official statements.
Tanks advanceResidents 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-Assad 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.
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.
'Targeted ferocity'"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.
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.
US, Russia warn Assad
International pressure on Assad also increased Thursday, a day after the U.N. Security Council , the first substantive U.N. action on Syria's response to the five-month-old uprising for political freedoms.
The Obama administration moved to further isolate Assad and his inner circle by imposing sanctions on a prominent pro-regime businessman and his firm.
"President Asad has lost his legitimacy," Clinton reiterated in Washington, NBC News reported.
She said the United States believed Assad's government was responsible for more than 2,000 deaths since the uprising began.
"The step we saw last night in the Security Council will be the first step to unite the world in actions that will send a very clear message that there is a price to pay for this kind of abuse," she said.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned Syria's ruler that he will face a "sad fate" if he fails to introduce reforms and open a peaceful dialogue with the opposition.
"He (Assad) needs to urgently carry out reforms, reconcile with the opposition, restore peace and set up a modern state," Medvedev said in an interview with Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio, Russia Today television and Georgia's PIK-TV.
"If he fails to do this, he will face a sad fate," he said in the southern Russian resort of Sochi.
His comments, a day after Russia backed the U.N. Security Council statement condemning Damascus' crackdown on protesters, underlined Russia's hardening stance toward Assad's government following new reports of bloodshed. Russia, which has a naval base in Syria, and China previously threatened to veto a U.N. resolution condemning violence in Syria.
Also Thursday, Germany said it would ask the United Nations to send a special envoy to Syria to increase pressure on Damascus.
White House ratchets up criticism
The new penalties announced by the U.S. Treasury Department were levied against Assad family confidante Muhammad Hamsho and his firm, Hamsho International Group. They freeze any assets they may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from doing business with them. Hamsho's holding company has about 20 subsidiaries ranging from construction, civil engineering, telecommunications and hotels to carpets sales, horse trading and ice cream production.
Treasury Undersecretary David S. Cohen said Hamsho, who is also a member of Syria's parliament, had become wealthy through his connections to Assad and his brother, Mahir, and other members of the regime who have ordered the crackdown on the five-month-old uprising.
In a statement, Treasury took several other shots at Hamsho, saying his commercial success was due to his regime connections "rather than his business acumen" and that he had "paid large sums of money to secure his seat" in parliament.
In May, the administration imposed sanctions on Assad and several senior Syrian officials to protest the deadly violence being used to quell demonstrations. But calls for additional steps have been growing since Sunday when the regime ordered troops into the restive city of Hama, where they have shelled buildings and shot indiscriminately at residents.