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Syrian troops shell flashpoint city

Syrian forces have shelled the city of Hama in the second day of a fierce assault aimed at crushing the anti-government protests against President Bashar Assad's regime.

Less than 24 hours after government raids left at least 70 people dead and possibly many more, troops backed by tanks renewed their attempt to subdue Hama, a centre of the revolt against the Assad family's rule.

The escalating government crackdown appears aimed at preventing the protests from swelling during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on Monday.

Muslims throng mosques during Ramadan for special night prayers after breaking their daily dawn-to-dusk fast. The gatherings could trigger intense protests throughout the predominantly Sunni country and activists say authorities are moving to ensure that does not happen.

More than 1,600 civilians have been killed in the crackdown on the largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime since the uprising began in mid-March. But the regime disputes the toll and blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying religious extremists - not true reform-seekers - are behind it.

Assad said he remains confident his government will quell the uprising which he said aims at "fragmenting the country as a prelude for fragmenting the entire region."

The worst carnage on Sunday was in Hama, the scene of a 1982 massacre by Assad's late father and predecessor and a city with a history of defiance against 40 years of Assad family rule. Hospitals there were overwhelmed with bloodied casualties, suggesting the death toll could rise sharply, witnesses said.

It appeared the regime was making an example of Hama, a religiously conservative city about 130 miles north of the capital, Damascus. The city largely has fallen out of government control since June as residents turned on the regime and blockaded the streets against encroaching tanks.

Residents said as many as 120 were killed in Hama alone on Sunday.

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