News / Middle East

US Envoy Visits Syrian City of Hama to Support Protesters

US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford
US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford

The U.S. ambassador to Syria has traveled to the city of Hama to express solidarity with residents protesting the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian government condemned the visit as an attempt to incite anti-government sentiment. Hama has been a focal point of the nation's political unrest, with the situation escalating this week as tanks surround the city.

The central city of Hama has been one of the centers of the movement against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

This week, tanks moved to the outskirts of the city, raising concerns of a military assault.

A rights activist in Syria said Thursday that security patrols have killed at least 25 civilians inside Hama in recent days and detained more than 100 people. She said hundreds of people have fled the city.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that the United States is "greatly concerned" about the situation in Hama. She said the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, had gone to the city to express solidarity with protesters.

"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, who want a democratic future and are expressing those views peacefully," Nuland said.

Nuland said Ambassador Ford was in Hama Thursday on his own trip, and is not being hosted by the Syrian government. But she said the embassy did inform the government that a delegation would be heading to the city.

Nuland said Ford has described the situation in Hama as "tense," with many shops closed and people concerned about whether security forces will move in.

"He had at least a dozen encounters with those Syrians of Hama who are dissatisfied and concerned about the government's action," Nuland said.

Nuland said the U.S. ambassador plans to stay in the city through Friday, when more protests are planned.

Syrian security forces moved in on Hama after President Assad fired the provincial governor following a massive anti-government rally in the city last Friday.

Troops had largely withdrawn from the city after a June 3 crackdown on protesters that killed at least 60 people there.

Human rights groups say security forces have killed at least 1,400 civilians across Syria since the uprising began in mid-March. The Syrian government says terrorists and Islamist militants have killed hundreds of security personnel during the same period.

As the crackdown widens, London-based rights group Amnesty International says Syrian forces may have committed crimes against humanity during an operation last month near the Lebanese border.

Amnesty International's Philip Luther said a report the organization prepared on the operation looks specifically at events in the town of Talkalakh. "We conducted interviews with more than 50 people in May and June and on the basis of that heard really harrowing testimonies of torture and other ill treatment in detention, deaths in custody and arbitrary detention," Luther said.

Syrian officials have denied reports of a military campaign against Hama.

The city is an important symbol of Syrian resistance against the Assad regime and the brutality used to contain it. In 1982, President Bashar al-Assad's late father used military force to silence a rebellion there, killing tens of thousands.

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