U.S. ambassador in Syria’s Hama ahead of protests

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The U.S. ambassador to Syria toured Hama yesterday to show solidarity with residents facing a security crackdown after weeks of demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria condemned ambassador Robert Ford’s visit, which it said went ahead without approval from Damascus, as an attempt to incite escalation in the city where more protests are planned today despite raids by security forces.

The State Department said the U.S. embassy had informed the Syrian government that an embassy team — without naming Ford — was travelling to the city, which residents say is still ringed with tanks, and said Ford hoped to stay until today.
“The fundamental intention … was to make absolutely clear with his physical presence that we stand with those Syrians who are expressing their right to speak for change,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said.
“We are greatly concerned about the situation in Hama,” Nuland told a news briefing in Washington.

The city was the scene of a 1982 massacre which came to symbolise the ruthless rule of the late President Hafez al-Assad and has staged some of the biggest protests in 14 weeks of demonstrations against his son Bashar.

Residents blocked streets with burning tyres yesterday, trying to keep out busloads of security forces, and dozens of families fled to a nearby town, an activist and a resident said.

Rami Abdelrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two men were found dead on a bridge leading out of Hama towards the industrial city of Homs. They had bullet wounds but their bodies had also been run over by a vehicle, he said.
“(Security forces) tried to enter Hama, but residents burnt tyres in the roads to prevent them from entering,” Abdelrahman said.

Tanks were deployed around the outskirts of Hama this week after tens of thousands of people rallied in a central square on Friday demanding Assad’s departure, the culmination of a month of growing protests in the city.

Protesters were exploiting an apparent security vacuum in the city after Assad’s forces pulled back following the killing of at least 60 protesters on June 3.

Assad sacked the Hama provincial governor on Saturday. Security forces swept in on Monday and activists say at least 26 people have been killed in a wave of arrests and shootings, but the tanks have stayed outside the city.

Residents say water and electrity supplies have been cut.

Ford’s trip marked a sharp increase in U.S. efforts to dissuade Assad from taking further drastic action to quash protests against his rule.

Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years until his death in 2000, sent troops into Hama in 1982 to crush an Islamist-led uprising. That attack killed many thousands, possibly up to 30,000.

Activists say Bashar’s forces have killed at least 1,300 civilians in the unrest, with most of the protests erupting after weekly Friday prayers. Authorities say 500 police and soldiers have been killed by “armed groups,” whom they also blame for most of the civilian deaths.

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 Bank Ki-moon urged Damascus on Thursday to give U.N. aid workers immediate access to evaluate the needs of civilians caught up in the crackdown, and to allow a team of U.N. human rights investigators to carry out their mission in Syria.
“In Syria, the killings continue and this must stop… It is time to see progress there,” Ban told reporters.

Syria’s al-Watan newspaper said a parliamentary election due in August would be postponed to allow parliament to pass new laws on the media and political parties, part of a package of reforms which Assad has pledged in response to the unrest.

The president raised the possibility of delaying the election in a speech last month in which he set out plans for a national dialogue with the opposition. Opposition figures say they will not talk while killings and arrests continue.

The official SANA news agency reported pro-government demonstrations across the country, including in the coastal province of Tartous, where it said tens of thousands of people waved a 1,000-metre national flag.

Abdelrahman of the Syrian Observatory said 300 people had been arrested in the last two days in Jabal al-Zawya, a region 35 km (22 miles) south of Turkey.

The area, consisting of around 40 villages, has been a focal point of Syrian troop activity since forces shot dead four villagers last week.
“People are too scared to go outside. Shops have closed and farmers won’t even enter their fields to pick apples,” Abdelrahman told Reuters by telephone from Britain.