Protesters Gather In Hama, Syria

In Syria Friday, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the central city of Hama, which has hosted the largest protests since the movement began four months ago. The demonstrators are calling for the downfall of President Bashar Assad. Meanwhile, American ambassador Robert Ford is in Hama to express solidarity with the protesters. His trip has infuriated the Syrian government.

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The U.S. and Syria have been sparring today over a visit by the American ambassador to Hama. That city is a center of protest against the government.

Syria accused the U.S. today of attempting to destabilize the country. The State Department replied bluntly: rubbish. And it says that Ambassador Robert Ford and his French counterpart traveled to Hama to show solidarity with people seeking change.

NPR's Deborah Amos has the story from Beirut.

(Soundbite of crowd)

DEBORAH AMOS: In Syria, U.S. officials are not often showered with olive branches and flowers, but the videos recorded by activists shows the ambassador's silver Jeep mobbed by friendly Syrians delighted that he had come to spend the night in their town.

Ambassador Ford saved lives in Hama, today, says activist Amer al Sadeq.

Mr. AMER AL SADEQ: Today, we had huge fears of army intervention inside the city and security forces killing the people of Hama. And we believe that his visit today protected the people there, which didn't happen in other cities.

AMOS: At least nine Syrians were killed during protests across the country, two in the capital Damascus, according to Sadeq and other activists. But the Syrian government accused the U.S. ambassador of inciting violence.

Syrian state TV showed pictures of Ford's visit, but reported that Syrians in a nearby town were waiting to pelt him with rotten eggs. This Friday's sermon from a Damascus mosque was also broadcast.

(Soundbite of sermon)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Jihad is declared under an American flag, asked the imam? Jihad is led by an American ambassador?

It was an all-day campaign to blunt the dramatic symbolism in Hama, now the center of anti-government protests. Salmon Shaikh heads the Brookings Center in the Middle East, and he says the ambassador's visit signals a new phase in the crisis.

Mr. SALMON SHAIKH (Director, Brookings Doha Center): I think this is a significant development, actually. I think the American ambassador, very courageous move on his part, as well as the French, are now looking for other ways to move this crisis forward.

AMOS: The international community has been at odds over how to deal with the Syrian uprising. The ambassador's presence in a town surrounded by Syrian tanks and security forces was a creative way to send a message, says Shaikh.

Mr. SHAIKH: I think there is a real worry that more and more people could be killed, especially in a place like Hama with the history that it has with the massacre in 1982. I think it also signals that their patience has run out with this regime.

AMOS: President Bashar al-Assad has proposed a national dialogue as a way out of the crisis. The government accused the ambassador of trying to scuttle talks that are due to begin this week.

But opposition to any dialogue with the government was the theme of Friday's protests across the country, called No to Dialogue Day.

The protest movement in Hama and elsewhere presents a challenge to the Assad regime. Did the ambassador's visit make a difference today? Wissam Tarif is the head of Syrian human rights group.

Mr. WISSAM TARIF (Executive Director, Insan International): Well, we have definitely seen a much lower death toll today in Syria. And the death toll today in Hama was zero. So it had an impact definitely.

AMOS: In Hama, anti-government protesters grew bolder today, says Damascus-based activist Amer Sadeq.

Mr. SADEQ: Well, we believe the demonstration was a little bit bigger than what it was last week, and we believe it was like that because there was no security intervention.

AMOS: Hama is a test for the Assad regime. The government is struggling in an international spotlight to find a policy to deal with this hotbed of rebellion as it slips further out of government control.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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