- 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.”

“GCC countries … call for an immediate end to the violence and any armed appearances, as well as an end to the bloodshed,” it said.

Under the relentless clampdown, Hama residents on Friday warned that medical supplies were running out and food was rotting after six days without electricity. One resident described the humanitarian situation as “catastrophic.”

Everything was closed, including bakeries and pharmacies, he said. “There are sick people, people with diabetes who have run out of insulin … The food has spoiled because there’s no electricity,” he said. “You cannot imagine how tired and terrified people are.”

Syrian government forces launched the Hama assault on Sunday, cutting off electricity, phone services and Internet and blocking supplies into the city of 800,000 as they shelled neighborhoods and sent in tanks and ground raids.

It appeared to be an all-out attempt to take back the city — which has a history of dissent — after residents all but took it over since June, barricading it against the regime. Rights group say at least 100 people have been killed, while some estimates put the number as high as 250.

The tolls could not be verified because of the difficulty reaching residents and hospital officials in the city, where journalists are barred as they are throughout Syria.

Across the country, tens of thousands of protesters marched on Friday, chanting their solidarity with Hama and demanding the ouster of President Bashar Assad.

Located 130 miles (210 kilometers) north of the capital Damascus, Hama holds special significance for Syrians because of a 1982 massacre that sticks in the collective memory. In 1982, Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, ordered the military to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement there, sealing off the city in an assault that killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people.

Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso said at least 24 people civilians died Friday, most of them in Damascus suburbs when security forces opened fire during daytime protests and late night demonstrations following evening Ramadan prayers. He said five were killed in Hama and its surrounding countryside.

The toll was confirmed Saturday by the Local Coordination Committees, a key activist groups tracking the Syrian uprising.

The U.S. State Department on Friday urged Americans to leave the country immediately and advised those who remain in the country to restrict their movements. The warning came as congressional calls grew for the Obama administration to impose severe new sanctions on President Bashar Assad’s regime.

In a new travel warning, the department said Americans should depart Syria while commercial flights and other transportation are still available “given the ongoing uncertainty and volatility of the situation.” It noted that Syrian authorities have imposed tight restrictions on the ability of U.S. and other diplomats to move around the country.

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