DAMASCUS, July 31, 2011 (AFP) - Syrian forces killed nearly 140 people on Sunday including 100 when the army stormed the flashpoint protest city of Hama to crush dissent on the eve of Ramadan, activists said.
Activists said it was one of deadliest days in Syria since demonstrators first took to the streets on March 15 demanding democratic reforms before turning their wrath on the regime and calling for its ouster.
As reports of the brutal crackdown on Hama unfurled, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Turkey condemned the violence while a US diplomat said it was "full-on warfare".
"It is one of the deadliest days" since the protests erupted, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Death tolls provided by the Observatory and other human rights groups showed at least 136 people were killed across Syria, most of them falling in Hama.
"One hundred civilians were killed on Sunday in Hama by gunfire from security forces who accompanied the army as it stormed the city," said Abdel Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights.
Rihawi said five other people were killed in the central city of Homs and three more in the northwestern province of Idlib when security forces opened fire on protesters who rallied in support of Hama.
The head of the National Organisation for Human Rights, Ammar Qorabi, put the Hama death toll at 95. The Observatory's Abdel Rahman said 47 people were killed in and around the central city but the toll could rise.
"The number of those wounded is huge and hospitals cannot cope, particularly because we lack the adequate equipment," Abdel Rahman quoted a Hama hospital source as saying.
Abdel Rahman said the crackdown on Hama came after more than 500,000 people rallied in the city on Friday following Muslim prayers during which a cleric told the congregation "the regime must go."
Activists also reported deaths in Deir Ezzor, Syria's main gas- and oil-production hub in the east which has become a rallying point for protests along with Hama.
At least 19 people were killed in Deir Ezzor, six in Herak in the south, and one in Al-Bukamal in the east, said Qorabi, adding most of those shot in Deir Ezzor were "hit in the head and the neck" by snipers.
-- "Syria is bleeding" --
The Syrian Revolution 2011, an Internet group that has been a driving force behind the protests, urged demonstrators to gather nationwide after Ramadan "taraweeh" evening prayers later Sunday "for retaliation protests."
"Syria is bleeding" it said.
Western powers condemned the violence amid warnings from Berlin and Paris of fresh sanctions against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
US President Barack Obama said Sunday he was "appalled by the Syrian government's use of violence and brutality against its own people".
In a statement, Obama saluted demonstrators who have taken to the streets as "courageous" and said Syria "will be a better place when a democratic transition goes forward."
Earlier, a US diplomat in Damascus told BBC World Service radio that the violence in Hama amounted to "full-on warfare" and a final act of desperation.
"There is one big armed gang in Syria, and it's named the Syrian government," said JJ Harder, the press attache at the American embassy in Damascus.
The Syrian authorities have consistently accused "armed gangs" and fundamentalist Salafist Muslims of stirring the unrest and aiming to sow chaos in the Sunni-majority country.
But other Western powers joined in the condemnation of the latest protester killings.
Germany threatened to new sanctions on Damascus along with its EU partners, France warned Syria's leaders "will have to answer for their deeds," and Italy called the Hama crackdown "the latest horrible act of violent repression."
Criticism also came from neighbour Turkey, which said it was "deeply saddened and disappointed... by the current developments on the eve of holy month of Ramadan."
Residents in Hama said the army entered the city with tanks at around 6:00 am (0300 GMT) before gunfire erupted, in an apparent operation to wrest back control after security forces withdrew almost two months ago.
The official SANA news agency charged that gunmen shot dead two security forces in Hama while a colonel and two soldiers were "martyred" in Deir Ezzor.
SANA said the gunmen torched police stations and attacked private and public property in Hama, adding soldiers tore down barricades and checkpoints set up by the armed men at the city's entrance.
Abdel Rahman said the army also launched an operation against Muadhamiya in the Damascus region at dawn, "with tanks blocking the southern, eastern and western entrances to the town".
The Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights reported more than 300 people detained in Muadhamiya.
Also arrested was Bagara tribal chief and opposition figure Nawwaf Ragheb al-Bashir, who was seized on Saturday in Deir Ezzor, according to the Syrian League.
The Observatory reported demonstrations in the central city of Homs and along the Aleppo-Damascus highway -- which residents cut off in several points -- to protest against the Hama crackdown.
In 1982, an estimated 20,000 people were killed in Hama when the army put down an Islamist revolt against the rule of Assad's late father, Hafez.
The president replaced the governor of Hama after a record 500,000 protesters rallied in the opposition bastion on July 1 calling for the fall of the regime.
At least 1,583 civilians and 369 members of the army and security forces have been killed since mid-March in Syria, according to the Observatory.