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Raids and arrests in Syrian protest city

HAMA, Syria, July 4 (UPI) -- Syrian security forces raided homes and arrested activists on the outskirts of the city of Hama, an opposition activist and a human rights group said Monday.

The action sparked clashes between angry residents and the security forces as between 25 to 30 activists were arrested, CNN reported.

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The confrontation between the security forces and rock-throwing residents lasted for several hours, Omar al Habbal, a member of the Local Coordination Committees of Syria in Hama said.

The LCC is an opposition group seeking "freedom, democracy and a free country for all the people of Syria."

Syrian tanks and troops in armored carriers had blocked Hama's key roads after residents staged a large anti-regime protest Sunday, activists said.

The heavily armed military forces had converged on the ancient city amid heavy gunfire and made dozens of arrests, the LLC said.

The actions raised confusion and fears government forces were poised to re-enter the city after weeks of violence-free protests that culminated Friday in the largest protest against President Bashar Assad since the anti-regime uprising began three months ago.

About 200,000 people demonstrated peacefully that day in Hama's central Aasi Square, which protesters now call Freedom Square, demanding Assad step down, the Local Coordinating Committees, a network of activists across Syria, told The Wall Street Journal.

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The New York Times said the demonstration was reminiscent of Cairo's Tahrir Square in February, with chants, songs and speeches and residents offering water and bananas to protesters.

The day after the protest, Assad fired the governor responsible for the city, Syria's fourth largest, with 800,000 people.

The largely Sunni Muslim city -- 130 miles north of Damascus on the main corridor that links the capital with Homs and Aleppo -- has a bloody history of dissent against the government going back more than 30 years.

In the late 1970s, Sunni Islamists opposed the regime of Assad's father, President Hafez Assad, who in February 1982 had his brother Rifaat Assad conduct a "scorched earth" attack against Hama, with tanks and artillery shelling neighborhoods, destroying anything that might be useful and allegedly executing thousands of civilian prisoners after the rebellion was crushed.

Between 25,000 to 30,000 are believed to have been killed then in what became known as the Hama massacre. No reliable death figures are available because information is suppressed and regarded by the government as highly sensitive.

A month ago, Syrian security forces killed at least 73 protesters in Hama in one of the bloodiest days of the current anti-Assad uprising.

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Early Monday communications and electricity in parts of Hama were cut off, activists said.

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