AMMAN, Jordan – President Bashar al-Assad extended a tank onslaught in Syria's Sunni Muslim tribal heartland on Monday, residents said, in an escalating crackdown on protesters that prompted an extraordinary rebuke from the Saudi king warning the Syrian leader to adopt reforms or risk defeat.
King Abdullah, an absolute ruler, broke Arab silence after the bloodiest week of the almost five-month uprising for more political freedoms in Syria, demanding an end to the bloodshed and recalling the Saudi ambassador from Damascus.
It was the sharpest criticism the oil giant has directed against any fellow Arab state since a tide of pro-democracy unrest began to sweep across the Middle East in January, toppling autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, kindling civil war in Libya and rattling entrenched elites throughout the region.
"What is happening in Syria is not acceptable for Saudi Arabia," Abdullah said in a written statement read out on Al-Arabiya satellite television.
"Syria should think wisely before it's too late and issue and enact reforms that are not merely promises but actual reforms," he said. "Either it chooses wisdom on its own or it will be pulled down into the depths of turmoil and loss."
His statement followed similar messages since Saturday from the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
It came as Syrian tanks and troops poured into the eastern Sunni city of Deir al-Zor in the latest stage of a campaign to crush centers of protest against 41 years of rule by the Assad family and domination by his Alawite minority community.
"Armored vehicles are shelling the al-Hawiqa district heavily with their…guns. Private hospitals are closed and people are afraid to send the wounded to state facilities because they are infested with secret police," Mohammad, a resident, told Reuters by telephone.
The al-Joura neighborhood of Deir al-Zor, which straddles the Euphrates River, was also hit hard by Assad's forces and thousands of residents of both districts had fled, he said with crump of heavy-caliber weaponry audible in the background.
He said at least 65 people had been killed since tanks and armored vehicles barreled into the provincial capital, 400km northeast of Damascus, on Sunday, crumpling makeshift barricades and opening fire.
The assault on the city, in an oil-producing province bordering Iraq, took place a week after tanks stormed Hama, where residents say scores have been killed.
With Arab leaders strikingly mum and an international response limited to verbal condemnation and sanctions on Syria's ruling hierarchy, Assad had faced few obstacles in stretching the military campaign against disaffected cities and towns into the fasting month of Ramadan, until the Saudi king intervened.
Relations between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Syria's Alawite elite have been tense since the assassination in 2005 of Rafik al-Hariri, a Western-backed Lebanese Sunni statesman who also had Saudi nationality.
Riyadh backs Hariri's son Saad while Assad, along with Iran's clerical rulers, support the armed Lebanese Shia Muslim guerrilla group Hizbullah. The Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslim.
A United Nations investigation initially implicated Syrian security officials in the killing of Hariri and an international tribunal indicted members of Hizbullah. Damascus and the Shia group denied involvement.
During months of demonstrations in Deir al-Zor, protesters tore up pictures of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and of Iran's president, witnesses and activists said, venting Sunni disquiet at Assad's policy aligning with Shia players.
AUTHORITIES DENY CITY ATTACKED
Syrian authorities denied that any Deir al-Zor assault had taken place. The official state news agency said "not a single tank has entered Deir al-Zor" and reports of tanks in the city were "the work of provocateur satellite channels".
Syria has barred most journalists, making it hard to confirm events reported by either side in the conflict.
The Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union said 50 people had been killed in Deir al-Zor on Sunday and at least 13 had been killed in a separate, tank-led assault on villages in the central Houla Plain, near the city of Homs.
"The numbers of casualties are escalating by the hour," activist Suhair al-Atassi, a member of the Coordinating Union, said by phone from Damascus on Sunday.
Another activist said: "The Deir al-Zor assault could be the turning point where the repression will backfire and people will start taking up arms against the regime. Assad cannot repress a whole nation like this, and expect people to watch as thousands get killed or disappear."
Syrian authorities say they have faced armed attacks since the protests first erupted in March, blaming armed saboteurs for most of the civilian deaths and accusing them of killing 500 security personnel.
State television broadcast footage on Sunday of mutilated bodies floating in the Orontes river in Hama, saying 17 police had been ambushed and killed in the city.
Human rights groups have reported some cases of gunmen attacking security forces, but say Assad's forces have killed at least 1600 civilians taking part in overwhelmingly peaceful protests. The United States says the figure exceeds 2000.
In Deir al-Zor, authorities allowed local tribes to arm as a counterweight to a Kurdish population further northeast.
But relations between Assad's government and the province deteriorated after years of water shortages, corruption and mismanagement of resources devastated agriculture and led to the internal displacement of up to a million people.
Assad, who has repeatedly described the uprising as a foreign conspiracy to divide Syria, defended the army's campaign. He was quoted by the official national news agency on Sunday as saying his forces were fulfilling a national duty by "dealing with outlaws and convicts…who seal off cities and terrorize the population".
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who cultivated close ties with Assad but has sharply criticized the crackdown, said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu would visit Syria on Tuesday.
"Our message will be decisively delivered," he said, drawing a rebuke from an Assad adviser, who described the Turkish statement as unbalanced.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to Davutoglu on Sunday, the State Department said, asking him to "reinforce" Washington's position that Syria must immediately return its military to barracks and release all prisoners of concern.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told Assad by phone on Saturday he was alarmed by the escalating violence and demanded he rein in the army. He repeated his appeal on Monday during a visit to Japan.