Syrians gather in Hama for protest

Fri, Jul 8, 2011, 01:00

Tens of thousands of people rallied in the Syrian city of Hama today, calling for the downfall of president Bashar al-Assad, as Western envoys visited the city to show support for protesters.

Activists said security forces shot dead 13 people elsewhere, including six in the town of Dumair near Damascus.

Hama, 200 km (125 miles) north of Damascus, has seen some of the biggest demonstrations against Assad and was also the site of a brutal crackdown by his father nearly 30 years ago. Mr Assad deployed tanks outside the city this week.

Footage on the internet showed a huge crowd in Hama's Orontes Square, some carrying a Syrian flag tens of metres long and chanting "The people want the downfall of the regime".

In a symbolic show of solidarity, US ambassador Robert Ford and French ambassador Eric Chevallier visited Hama to put pressure on Assad not to crush the protest.

Syria condemned Mr Ford's visit as incitement and proof that Washington was playing a role in 15 weeks of unrest which have challenged Mr Assad's grip on power.

The interior ministry said Mr Ford met "saboteurs and incited them to violence, protest and rejection of dialogue" which authorities say will begin on Sunday.

In a now familiar pattern of defiance, protesters emerged from mosques to protest in the capital, the southern city of Deraa where protests first erupted, the industrial city of Homs and other towns nationwide.

Activists said security forces shot dead six people in Dumair. Rights campaigner Ammar Qurabi said three people were killed in Maarat al-Numaan on the eastern edge of Idlib province, and two in the central Damascus district of Midan. Three people were killed in other, separate incidents, he said.

Residents and activists said security forces shot at protesters at the northern entrance of Hama who were trying to join the demonstration in the city, injuring two.

US State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said Mr Ford's visit aimed "to make absolutely clear with his physical presence that we stand with those Syrians who are expressing their right to speak for change".

"We are greatly concerned about the situation in Hama."

French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Chevallier's trip was one of several he had carried out to monitor the unrest.

"France recalls its concern for the inhabitants of Hama and its condemnation of the violence in Syria perpetrated by authorities against protesters," he said, calling on Mr Assad to free political prisoners and launch reforms.

The 1982 Hama massacre came to symbolise the ruthless rule of the late president Hafez al-Assad. A generation later, activists said security forces shot dead at least 60 people during protests there on June 3rd.

That triggered an apparent withdrawal of security forces, emboldening protesters who gathered in ever larger numbers after weekly Friday prayers, but also prompting Mr Assad to send security forces into Hama this week as tanks ringed the city.

Hama residents said the US ambassador toured the Hourani hospital where some people were taken for treatment this week during the security crackdown in which activists say security forces killed at least 26 people.

Activists say Bashar's forces have killed at least 1,400 civilians nationwide in the unrest. Authorities say 500 police and soldiers have been killed by "armed groups" whom they also blame for most of the civilian deaths.

The official Syrian news agency SANA said one member of the security forces was killed in Talbiseh, near the city of Homs, and one was wounded in the Damascus district of Midan.

Syria has barred most independent media from operating inside the country, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and authorities.

It has also largely shut out the United Nations. Secretary general Ban Ki-moon urged Damascus yesterday to give UN aid workers immediate access to evaluate the needs of civilians caught up in the crackdown and to allow a team of UN human rights investigators to carry out their mission in Syria.

Alongside the crackdown on protests, Mr Assad has promised political reforms and a national dialogue with the opposition, due to start with preliminary talks on Sunday.

But opposition figures have said they will not talk with authorities while the killings and arrests continue.

"I wonder how the authorities could issue an invitation for dialogue when the chains of their tanks are ploughing the lands across Syria, blood is being shed, the jails are flooding with prisoners and Syrians are clamouring to become refugees in foreign lands," dissident Haitham al-Maleh said.

"I do not think that any citizen who honours his country would accept such an invitation," said Maleh, a lawyer and former judge who spent his professional life resisting the takeover of the judiciary by the ruling Baath Party.