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An escalation in violence during Ramadan, a time of heightened religious fervor for devout Muslims, would bring a new dimension to the unrest in Syria, which has reached a stalemate in recent weeks. Assad’s elite forces have waged nearly nonstop crackdowns around the country, but new protest hotbeds have emerged — taxing the already exhausted and overextended military.

There have been credible reports of army defections, although it is difficult to gauge how widespread they are. Assad, and his father who ruled before him, stacked key military posts with members of their minority Alawite sect, melding the fate of the army and the regime.

The army has a clear interest in protecting the regime because they fear revenge attacks and persecution should the country’s Sunni majority gain the upper hand.

The searing August heat will only compound the already combustible scenario.

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the attacks were “all the more shocking” on the eve of Ramadan and appeared to be part of a coordinated effort to deter Syrians from protesting during the holy month.

“President Bashar (Assad) is mistaken if he believes that oppression and military force will end the crisis in his country. He should stop this assault on his own people now,” Hague said.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini appealed to the Syrian government “to immediately cease the violence against civilians,” calling it “a horrible act of violent repression against protesters who have been demonstrating for days in a peaceful manner.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an end to the violence and reminded Syrian authorities that “they are accountable under international human rights law for all acts of violence perpetrated by them against the civilian population.”

But months of withering criticism and sanctions by the international community has not softened the regime’s crackdown. Assad has brushed off the criticism as foreign interference.

More than 1,600 civilians have been killed in the crackdown on the largely peaceful protests against Assad’s regime since the uprising began. Most were killed in shootings by security forces at anti-government rallies.

The government has sought to discredit those behind the protests by saying they are terrorists and foreign-backed extremists, not true reform-seekers. State-run news agency SANA blamed the unrest Sunday on gunmen and extremists, and said two policemen, an officer and two soldiers were killed.

Sunday’s death toll was expected to rise as hospitals received the dead. The Local Coordination Committees identified 49 civilians who were killed in Hama and said they had compiled the victims’ names. The figure was confirmed by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which cited hospital officials in Hama.

But Damascus-based Abdul-Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian Human Rights League, and Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso said more than 100 people were killed in Hama alone. They cited a network of witnesses and activists on the ground, including medical workers.

Other deaths were reported in the Hama countryside; al-Joura in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour; and al-Hirak village in the southern province of Daraa.

Since the uprising began, Hama has been one of the hottest centers of the demonstrations, with hundreds of thousands protesting every week. In early June, security forces shot dead 65 people there before pulling out. Until Sunday, the troops have stayed on the outskirts, ringing the city and conducting overnight raids.

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