BEIRUT, LEBANON - Ignoring mounting condemnations, the Syrian military deployed tanks, armored vehicles and snipers Wednesday in the central square of the rebellious city of Hama in what appeared to be a decisive step by President Bashar Assad to crush opposition to his rule.

The military's assault on Assi Square, the scene of some of the biggest demonstrations against Assad's leadership, marked a moment that many activists and residents had thought impossible: The government's determination to retake by force a city that suffered one of the most brutal crackdowns in Syrian history in 1982.

But the government, whose calculations continue to mystify its own people and run the risk of invigorating the uprising, seemed to view the momentum of demonstrations there that drew hundreds of thousands last month as a threat to its survival. The critical mass of the uprising there has spread to Deir al-Zour in restive eastern Syria, and together, the locales represent two of Syria's five largest cities.

"The regime wants to finish with Hama as soon as possible," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University in Beirut.

Activists reported many casualties, adding to the toll since Sunday of more than 100 people reported killed. "The army is now stationed in Assi Square," read a post on the Syrian Revolution Facebook page. "The heroic youths of Hama are confronting them."

The Hama assault was a catalyst for action by the U.N. Security Council, where members agreed for the first time since the uprising started on a statement condemning the violence. It cited "widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities" and called for restraint.