- Associated Press - Saturday, August 6, 2011

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s foreign minister is promising Syrians “free and fair” general elections by the end of the year.

Walid al-Moallem says the new parliament will represent the aspirations of the Syrian people.

The four-year term of the current parliament expired earlier this year and President Bashar Assad is expected to set a date for new legislative elections before the end of 2011.

Al-Moallem spoke on Saturday during a meeting with Arab and foreign ambassadors in Damascus.

He pledged to press ahead with reforms and said dialogue was the only way forward for Syrians.

The announcement comes as the Syrian military tightened its suffocating siege on the city of Hama and activists said security forces killed at least 24 civilians on Friday in Assad’s nationwide crackdown on anti-government protesters.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian military tightened its suffocating siege on the city of Hama on Saturday, and activists said security forces killed at least 24 civilians the day before in a nationwide crackdown on anti-government protesters.

A Hama resident said tanks shelled the city Friday night, which resulted in several casualties. He said there were reports that at least one of the hospitals in the city had been targeted.

Authorities have imposed a media blackout on Hama and the reports could not be immediately confirmed.

The resident sneaked out of besieged Hama on Friday to try and get supplies, and spoke to The Associated Press by phone Saturday from the city’s outskirts.

“I am trying to get back but it’s impossible, they’ve tightened the siege even more, not even an ant can go in or out today,” he said.

Syria’s government has broadcast images of buildings and empty rubble-strewn streets in Hama, the epicenter of the protests, claiming the military was putting an end to an armed rebellion launched by “terrorists.”

The brutal crackdown has sparked international outrage, and a group of Gulf Arab countries on Saturday broke their silence on the bloodshed, calling for an immediate end to the violence and for implementation of “serious” reforms in Syria.

In a statement posted on its website, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council expressed deep concern and regret for “the escalating violence in Syria and use of excess force.”

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