Syrian troops backed by tanks killed at least 10 people when they stormed the city of Hama on Wednesday after a three-day general strike in support of a pro-democracy uprising had shut most businesses, activists said.
In the first armoured incursion into Hama since a tank offensive in August ended large protests in the city centre, troops entered districts north and east of the Orontes River, firing machineguns and ransacking and burning closed shops, they said.
Heavy civilian casualties were reported in the Hamidiya neighbourhood. Insurgents tried to stop the advancing forces at Hadid bridge and two armoured vehicles were reported destroyed, activists in contact with residents said.
Hamidiya has been a thorn in the side of the regime. It is an old area near farmland with lots of alleyways, which had helped protests continue there, Omar, a activist from Hama who lives in Damascus, said by phone.
Hama, 240 km (150 miles) north of Damascus, has particular resonance for Syrians. The city, in a valley on the Damascus-Aleppo highway, was the site of the biggest massacre in Syria's modern history.
Troops overran Hama in 1982 to put down the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which made its last stand in the city. Up to 30,000 people were killed, of whom many died in the army bombardment or were executed in the streets by death squads loyal to President Bashar al-Assad's' father, the late Hafez al-Assad.
Tanks attacked Hama at the beginning of August, provoking Arab and Western outrage, after weeks of protests that drew hundreds of thousands of people to the main Orontes Square, demanding the removal of Bashar and an end to 41 years of Assad family rule.
Tanks withdrew after 10 days. The authorities said the operation was necessary to cleanse the city of terrorists according to the wishes of Hama inhabitants. Activists said up to 300 people, mostly civilians, may have been killed.
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom, Editing by Mark Trevelyan)