Nearly half a million anti-government protesters filled the streets of the volatile Syrian city of Hama Friday. Two senior foreign envoys visited in a show of solidarity. Rights activists say Syrian security forces were tempered by the outside presence in Hama but were attacking people in other cities.
Their chanting echoed across the city. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians poured into the streets of Hama Friday, calling once again for an end to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, this time in one of the largest gatherings in the four-month uprising.
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Just one day earlier, there had been fears of a brutal military crackdown in Hama, with the Syrian army surrounding the city with tanks and thousands of people fleeing.
The situation brought back memories of 1982, when President Assad's late father oversaw a massacre in the city to silence a rebellion there.
But a U. S.-based rights activist, who asked not to be named, told VOA that the arrival of the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who was later joined by the French ambassador, changed everything.
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"I think the American ambassador to go today to Hama, I think he prevented a brutal and bloody day in Hama because in the last three days, let's say on Tuesday and Wednesday, more than 28 people were killed in Hama and we were anticipating much more actually today [Friday] because the security forces were preparing themselves to go into the city," she said.
People in Hama were happy that the foreign envoys visited the city. The Syrian activist said they threw flowers on the U.S. ambassador's car and gave him videos documenting human rights violations by Syrian security forces.
The Syrian foreign ministry, however, slammed the U.S. official's decision to travel to Hama as "clear evidence" of a U.S. attempt to increase tension and destabilize Syria. The government accused the ambassador of going to the city without advance permission.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland denied that. "Our embassy in Damascus did inform the Syrian government, in this case the ministry of defense, that we planned to have a delegation go to Hama in advance," she said. "They had to go through a Syrian government military checkpoint, and they were allowed to pass. So the notion that this was somehow a surprise to the Syrian government or was in violation of their will doesn't make any sense."
Rights activists say Syrian security forces continued cracking down on civilians in other cities Friday, making arrests and shooting and killing some protesters.
"They don't care about their own people," she said. "They are just caring about staying in power, and they don't care how many people they are killing. More than 1,700 people [have been] killed so far in Syria. This is documented by name - dates and names. No one knows the exact number because human rights organizations are not allowed in Syria."
The activist said the suspension of water and electricity service in many cities is seen as another human rights issue, and one more reason why the Syrian people expect the international community to do more to pressure the Assad government.
But the International Crisis Group's Peter Harling, fresh from a trip to Syria, said the situation is complicated. "I think there is not much the international community can do in practice in the Syrian case, and sadly so. I think the Syrian protest is very much on its own and has yet to reach the critical mass which would demonstrate once and for all that the regime is illegitimate," he said.
Harling said the situation in Syria is much different from the uprising in Libya, where rebels have stronger international support, both military and humanitarian.
"Syria is seen as far more sensitive, far more complex, because it's at the crossroads of a number of strategic issues: the Arab-Israeli conflict, the struggle for power in Lebanon, the Iranian influence in the Arab world, the internecine Arab struggle for power," said Harling. "So the notion that the regime would fall, I think, is appealing to some, but there is also the fear that it would lead to a breakup of Syrian society, which is very complex in its makeup."
Whatever the international response, Syrians are making clear they are not ready to stop fighting.
A rights activist in Damascus, who also wishes to remain anonymous, told VOA Friday that the demonstrations are spreading. She said the Syrian people will continue protesting peacefully for their freedom.