US, French ambassadors visit Syrian protesters’ stronghold
Huge crowds rally as government denounces trip
BEIRUT - Hundreds of thousands of Syrians poured into the streets of the opposition stronghold Hama yesterday, 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 US 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 also erupted 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 yesterday and security forces killed one protester in Damascus.
The regime has staged large demonstrations in the capital, including one yesterday, to showcase its support.
In recent days, Hama residents have largely sealed off their city, setting up makeshift checkpoints with concrete blocks and burning tires 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we have no violence,’’ a Hama resident told the Associated Press by telephone from the city, asking that his name not be published out of fear for his safety.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 US and French ambassadors traveled to Hama in separate trips Thursday and left yesterday before the protests kicked off, according to officials in Washington and Paris.
In a video posted on YouTube that purports to show
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 United States and Syria are chronically strained over Assad’s ties with Iran.
The State Department spokeswoman said the United States informed the Syrian government of his travels ahead of time and she noted the Syrian ambassador in Washington can move freely around the United States.