French and US ambassador visits bolster Hama protests

Anti-regime protesters in Hama staged one of their biggest demonstrations yet Friday, galvanized by the presence of the French and US ambassadors, who visited the opposition stronghold despite strong condemnation from the Syrian government.


AP - Hundreds of thousands of Syrians poured into the streets of the opposition stronghold Hama, bolstered by a gesture of support from the American and French ambassadors who visited the city where a massacre nearly 30 years ago came to symbolize the ruthlessness of the Assad dynasty.

The visit by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford drew swift condemnation from the Syrian government, which said the unauthorized trip was proof that Washington was inciting violence in the Arab nation.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the charge “absolute rubbish.”
Mass demonstrations erupted on Friday in cities and towns nationwide, triggering a crackdown that killed at least 13 people, activists said. But Hama’s protest was by far the largest, galvanizing residents in a city that has drawn the biggest crowds since the revolt began nearly four months ago.
Although President Bashar Assad still has a firm grip on power, international criticism over the brutal crackdown has left his regime shaken and isolated as it struggles to contain a protest movement that refuses to die.
The protesters have yet to come out in sustained numbers in the largest cities, the capital Damascus and Aleppo, although there were scattered protests Friday and security forces killed one protester in Damascus.
The regime has staged large demonstrations in the capital, including on Friday, to showcase its support.
In recent days, Hama residents have largely sealed off their city, setting up makeshift checkpoints with burning tires and concrete blocks to prevent security forces from storming into the city.
“As long as we have no security forces, we have no violence,” a Hama resident told The Associated Press by telephone from the city, asking that his name not be published out of fear for his safety.
Hama poses a potential dilemma for the Syrian regime because of its place as a symbol of opposition to the rule of the Assad family. In 1982, the late Hafez Assad ordered troops to crush a rebellion by Islamist forces, killing between 10,000 and 25,000 people, rights activists say.
A major offensive could make the city a fresh rallying cry for the opposition.
It appeared that the latest crowds approached those from a week earlier, when an estimated 300,000 people protested, although the figures could not be confirmed. Three activists estimated at least 200,000  - and likely far more  - turned out.
Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted media coverage, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events on the ground.
The U.S. and French ambassadors traveled to Hama in separate trips Thursday and left on Friday before the protests kicked off, according to officials in Washington and Paris.
In a video posted on YouTube that purports to show Ford in an SUV near Hama’s central Assi Square, people tossed flowers and olive branches onto the vehicle and shouted for the downfall of the regime.
The Syrian government did not comment on French Ambassador Eric Chevallier’s trip to Hama.
But the regime seized on Ford’s visit to insist that foreign conspirators are behind the unrest, not true reform-seekers. Relations between the U.S. and Syria are chronically strained over Assad’s ties with Iran.
“The presence of the U.S. ambassador in Hama without obtaining prior permission from the Foreign Ministry as stipulated by instructions distributed repeatedly to all the embassies is clear evidence of the U.S. involvement in the ongoing events in Syria,” the state-run news agency reported Friday, citing an unnamed “official source” at the Foreign Ministry.
The U.S. is trying to “aggravate the situations which destabilize Syria,” the statement said.
The State Department spokeswoman said the U.S. informed the Syrian government of his travels ahead of time and she noted the Syrian ambassador in Washington can move freely around the U.S.
Nuland said friendly Syrians welcomed Ford and lavished his car with flowers and olive branches.
On Thursday, Nuland said Ford had reached the city after passing checkpoints run by the military and Hama residents and spent the day “expressing our deep support for the right of the Syrian people to assemble peacefully and to express themselves.”
France’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Chevallier’s visit showed the country’s concern for the Syrian population.
“In any case, there is one immediate reform that the Syrian regime could carry out: Give instructions to its security forces to stop firing on the population,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said later.
Nearly 700 people gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to protest Ford’s visit to Hama, some throwing tomatoes and plastic bottles at the building. Riot police kept most of them from reaching the building, although one person managed to scrawl graffiti on the wall that read: “Your conspiracy is under our feet, and your Zionist ambassador will be kicked out.”
Maha Shawa, a 56-year-old engineer, said she attended the protest to reject “foreign interference in Syria.”
“They live outside and don’t know anything about Syria,” she said. “We want to live in peace. Freedom does not mean that people violate the law.”
The Syrian regime has used a mix of fierce violence and tentative promises of reform to try to quell the uprising, which was inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Some 1,600 people and 350 members of security forces have been killed since demonstrations began, activists say.
The regime blames “armed thugs,” religious extremists and foreign conspirators for the unrest.
Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted media coverage, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events on the ground.
Also Friday, security forces killed three protesters in Maaret al-Numan, a town on the highway linking Damascus with Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, said Syrian rights activist Ammar Qurabi.
Ten other people were killed around the country, including one in Damascus, six in the Damascus suburb of Dumair and three in the central city of Homs. Syrian state-run TV said the deaths in Damascus and Homs were caused by snipers from “armed gangs.”
Overnight, Syrian forces killed three people in a demonstration in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, activists said. Many protesters have recently been opting for nighttime demonstrations and candlelight vigils, aiming for a time when the security presence thins out.
Three activists confirmed the Damascus death toll to The Associated Press.
A Syria-based activist said residents told him that security forces used live bullets and smoke bombs to quell the demonstration. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his own safety.


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