BEIRUT -- Syrian security forces backed by tanks and snipers launched a ferocious assault Sunday on defiant cities and towns, reportedly killing at least 70 people and possibly many more as the regime raced to crush dissent ahead of Ramadan.
Corpses littered the streets after a surge in violence that drew widespread international condemnation.
Estimates of the number killed, which were impossible to verify, ranged from 75 people to nearly 140 on a day when the attacks began before dawn and witnesses said they were too frightened to collect bodies from the streets.
The worst carnage was in Hama, the scene of a 1982 massacre by President Bashar Assad's late father and predecessor and a city with a history of defiance against 40 years of Assad family rule.
Hospitals there were overwhelmed with bloodied casualties, suggesting the death toll could rise sharply, witnesses said.
President Barack Obama called the reports "horrifying" and said Assad is "completely incapable and unwilling" to respond to the legitimate grievances of the Syrian people.
Ramadan, which begins Monday, will present a critical test for the government, which has unleashed deadly firepower since March but still has not been able to put down the revolt. Daily demonstrations are expected to surge during the holy month, when crowds gather in mosques each evening after the dawn-to-dusk fast.
Though the violence has failed to blunt the protests, the Syrian government appears to be hoping it can frighten people from taking to the streets during Ramadan. The protesters are promising to persevere.
Having sealed off the main roads into Hama almost a month ago, army troops in tanks pushed into the city from four sides before daybreak. Residents shouted "God is great!" and threw firebombs, stones and sticks at the tanks, residents said.