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Despite death reports, Syria denies Hama campaign

By the CNN Wire staff
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Syrian FM: No military offensive on Hama
  • NEW: "Peaceful demonstrators can move peacefully," official says
  • 10 killed, 35 wounded Tuesday, one activist says
  • "There is no military offensive on Hama," Syrian FM says

(CNN) -- Syria denied Tuesday that a military campaign was under way against the restive city of Hama, even as human rights groups reported deaths, arrests and clashes on the city's outskirts.

"There is no military offensive on Hama," Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said. When asked about reports that the military was on the city's outskirts, he responded, "No, this is not accurate. Maybe some military were moving toward Idlib; they have to cross through near Hama. But there is no military campaign against Hama."

The city is a sensitive spot for Syrian authorities. In 1982, it was the scene of a brutal military crackdown targeting Sunni Muslims by the Alawite-dominated government of Hafez al-Assad, President Bashar al-Assad's late father. Thousands were killed.

Moallem said Tuesday that the regime was not cracking down on all protesters, just some. "Depends on the type of demonstrators. If they are peaceful, I tell you, assure you, nobody can attack them," he said. "This is the instruction from President al-Assad himself."

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An activist reported that 10 people were killed and 35 wounded Tuesday in Hama.

Nine died from gunshot wounds, including some to the head; the 10th was found in the Assi River with signs of severe torture and beatings, said Rami Abdelrahman, president of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"Some armed people use this opportunity to disturb the security," Moallem said. "This will have to be answered. But usually peaceful demonstrators can move peacefully."

Also Tuesday, the United States reiterated support for the Syrian people and called for an end to the government crackdown.

"Syria claims it is interested in a dialogue with the opposition. Yet its actions in cities like Hama and along the Turkish border directly undermine the credibility of its words and its initiative," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.

"We urge the government of Syria to immediately halt its intimidation and arrest campaign, pull its security forces back from Hama and other cities, and allow the Syrian people to express their opinions freely so that a genuine transition to democracy can take place."

Hama, the provincial capital, has been the scene of very large demonstrations, and the outpourings there have been compared to the gatherings in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where daily demonstrations this year forced the removal of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak.

Syrian unrest, part of the "Arab Spring," a revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests that have swept across the Middle East, has attracted attention from around the world amid reports of violence against protesters.

The European Council -- comprising the heads of state of European Union members -- recently voted to expand sanctions against Syria, freezing the assets of people and businesses connected to the regime.

On Tuesday, Moallem dismissed the EU as a negative factor toward Syria.

"Our relation with the EU today is bad. We used to have an association agreement, and we've discovered that they are not a positive partner. This means when you need them you'll find them on the other side."

Throughout its campaign to crush an uprising, the Syrian government has denied reports of widespread use of violence, and it has blamed "armed gangs" and "terrorists" for the unrest.

State-run news agency SANA reported Tuesday that people from throughout the country were expressing support for al-Assad and his "comprehensive reform program."

On Monday, dozens of security forces began raiding homes and arresting activists on the outskirts of Hama before clashes that led to the deaths of three people, Abdelrahman said.

The National Organization for Human Rights in Syria also reported deaths in Hama.

CNN could not independently verify the reports.

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