BEIRUT — Syrian tanks rolled toward a tense central city mourning the deaths of dozens of protesters, reaching the outskirts late Saturday hours after a funeral procession through streets lined with shuttered shops and uniformed security forces, witnesses said.
The government lifted its stranglehold on the Internet, which has been key to motivating people to join the 11-week uprising, but the crackdown that has left over 1,200 dead since March did not relent: Troops killed at least six protesters in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, according to the Local Coordination Committees, which helps organize and document the protests calling for an end to the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, said "armed criminal groups" attacked several police stations in Jisr al-Shughour, killing two policeman. It said the attackers captured weapons from the stations. The Syrian government blames armed gangs and religious extremists for the violence.
More than 70 protesters were killed across Syria on Friday, in what appeared to be among the largest demonstrations yet in the country. At least 65 of those were in Hama, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The tanks at the entrance to Hama caused new alarm. The city rose up against Assad's father in 1982, only to be crushed by a three-week bombing campaign that killed thousands, memories of those days are still raw.
"Dozens of tanks are reaching the southern outskirts of the city," said an activist who lives in a nearby town. "They will probably lay a siege then storm Hama."
A Hama resident confirmed tanks reached the outskirts of the city. He said he had not yet seen them, but others had.
"May God protect us," the man said, his voice shaking.
The Local Coordination Committees says at least 1,270 people have been killed and more than 10,000 arrested since the uprising began in March.
The move toward Hama could mean that the army is preparing for a major operation there, similar to offensives in other areas in the past weeks such as the southern city of Daraa, the coastal city of Banias and the central town of Rastan where operations are still under way.
After noon prayers – and before the arrival of the tanks – tens of thousands of people streamed out of mosques carrying coffins of the dead and headed toward the two main cemeteries, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the rights group's director.
As they marched in the streets carrying the coffins, the protesters chanted "our souls, our blood we sacrifice to you martyr." They later passed by hundreds of uniformed security members guarding a statue of the late President Hafez Assad, the father and predecessor of the current president, at the southern entrance of the city, witnesses said.
Some of the dead where from nearby villages and were taken for burial in their hometowns, they said.
The witnesses said that in addition to the tight security near the statue, hundreds of security agents guarded the local office of the ruling Baath party and the nearby police headquarters. But there was no overt friction between protesters and the troops.
Residents said most shops in Hama were closed since the morning to protest the shootings.
"People are in a state of shock," a resident, who like many in Syria spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal.
The Syrian government has severely restricted the media and expelled foreign reporters, making it nearly impossible to independently verify what is happening there.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said authorities released a leading opposition figure Saturday. Ali Abdullah of the Damascus Declaration Group had been jailed since 2007 and was among hundreds of political prisoners freed this week after Assad issued a general amnesty.
Assad also created a committee that he said would pave the way for a national dialogue, hoping the concessions would satisfy the revolt, which is posing the most serious challenge to the Assad family's 40-year rule. What began as a disparate movement demanding reforms has grown into a resilient uprising seeking Assad's ouster.
Assad has invited officials from 12 outlawed Kurdish parties to meet him, said Mohammed Moussa of the Kurdish Leftist Party, whose group was invited. He said the meeting is expected in the coming days.
Such a move would have been unthinkable only a few months ago. Assad granted citizenship two months ago to stateless Kurds in eastern Syria – aimed at addressing protesters' grievances.
About 1.5 million of Syria's 22 million people are Kurds. Syria's Kurdish minority has long complained of discrimination.
Follow Bassem Mroue at http://twitter.com/bmroue