US, French envoys in Syria's Hama for protests

Syrian gov't condemns visit of Robert Ford saying it is proof that US is playing role in unrest; security forces storm Damascus suburb, 2 hurt.

Syria protest 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria protest 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BEIRUT - Thousands of Syrians gathered in Hama on Friday to protest against President Bashar Assad, residents said, as US and French ambassadors visited their city in a gesture of support which angered Syrian authorities.
Hama 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, painful memories of which were revived by Assad's deployment of tanks outside the city this week.
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Live footage on the Internet showed a large crowd in Orontes Square, some of them carrying a long Syrian flag.
The visit by US Ambassador Robert Ford was condemned by Syria as incitement and proof that Washington was playing a role in 15 weeks of unrest which have challenged Assad's grip on power.
"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."
Diplomats said on Friday that French ambassador Eric Chevallier also was in Hama to show support for the city.
The 1982 Hama massacre came to symbolize the ruthless rule of the late President Hafez Assad. A generation later, activists said security forces shot dead at least 60 people in Hama during protests on June 3.
That triggered an apparent withdrawal of security forces, emboldening protesters who gathered in ever larger numbers after weekly Friday prayers. Last week tens of thousands -- residents said hundreds of thousands -- rallied in Orontes Square.
Syria condemned Ford's visit as "clear evidence of the United States's involvement in current events in Syria and its attempt to incite an escalation", saying it went ahead without approval from authorities in the capital Damascus.
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
The State Department said the US embassy had informed the Syrian government that an embassy team -- without naming Ford -- was traveling to Hama. His trip marked a sharp increase in US efforts to persuade Assad to curb the repression of protests.
Hama residents said he toured the Hourani hospital where some people were taken for treatment this week after violence in which activists say security forces killed at least 26 people.
Security forces raid Damascus suburb
There were no immediate reports of violence in Hama on Friday. A day earlier residents blocked streets with burning tires, trying to keep out busloads of security forces, and dozens of families fled to a nearby town, activists said.
In the Damascus suburb of Harasta, about 200 km (125 miles) south of Hama, security forces injured two people when they stormed the district, residents and a human rights group said.
Overnight, about 300 security personnel entered the suburb, where there have been daily protests demanding political freedoms, and started firing from machineguns mounted on trucks and making house to house arrests, they said.
Syrian human rights organization Sawasiah said in a statement that security forces also raided the main hospital in Harasta, a tactic used in similar assaults on cities and towns elsewhere in Syria, and abducted three injured protesters "whose lives are now in extreme danger."
Some of the biggest protests against Assad's rule have been staged after Muslim prayers on Fridays.
Activists say Bashar's forces have killed at least 1,300 civilians 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.
Syria has barred most independent media from operating inside the country, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and authorities.
It also largely has shut out the United Nations. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Damascus on Thursday 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.