U.S. ambassador in Hama to support Syria protesters

WASHINGTON Thu Jul 7, 2011 3:37pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. ambassador to Syria traveled to the restive city of Hama on Thursday to show solidarity with protesters concerned that Syrian security forces ringing the city could stage a new crackdown.

The U.S. State Department said Ambassador Robert Ford met with at least 12 Hama residents on his trip, and hoped to stay in the city through Friday when more protests are planned.

"We are greatly concerned about the situation in Hama," State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told a news briefing in Washington.

"A week ago Hama was the good news story. It was the town where people were being allowed to protest peacefully, and today we see security forces ringing the city."

Ford's trip marked a sharp increase in U.S. efforts to dissuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from taking further drastic action to quash protests against his rule.

"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 who are expressing those views peacefully," Nuland said.

Nuland said the U.S. embassy in Damascus had informed the Syrian government that an embassy team -- without naming Ford himself -- planned to travel to the city and that they were allowed to pass through a military checkpoint to get there.

She said Ford had reported "a very warm welcome" and visited a hospital that has been treating people injured in earlier confrontations between protesters and Syrian security forces.

Hama, the scene of a 1982 massacre which came to symbolize the ruthless rule of the late President Hafez al-Assad, has seen some of the biggest protests in 14 weeks of demonstrations against his son, Bashar.

Hama residents blocked streets with burning tires on Thursday to keep out busloads of security forces, while tanks were deployed around the outskirts of the city earlier this week following a huge demonstration last Friday demanding Assad's exit.

WARM WELCOME

Nuland said Ford had reported "a very warm welcome" and visited a hospital treating people injured in earlier confrontations between protesters and Syrian security forces.

"The situation he says is tense, a lot of shops are closed, folks are concerned about whether the Syrian security forces will move in," she said, adding that Ford "is interested in seeing the activity tomorrow" when fresh protests are planned.

"I think (Ford's trip) expresses in physical terms, not to mention political terms, our view that the people of Hama have a right to express themselves peacefully and that we are concerned about the posture that the security forces have taken," she said.

Rights groups have criticized Washington for not reacting strongly enough to Syria's crackdown after supporting peaceful protest movements in other Arab countries including Libya.

In the Libyan case, President Barack Obama ordered U.S. forces to join NATO air strikes on forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians in rebel-held centers such as the city of Benghazi, which U.S. officials faced a possible massacre.

Obama has declared Assad has a choice to either lead a transition to democratic rule in Syria or get out of the way, and despite increasing pressure -- including targeted international sanctions -- Nuland said it appeared Assad was headed in the wrong direction.

"He seems to be making his choice by his actions, and his actions are to continue to surround peaceful towns like Hama with tanks and security forces," Nuland said, saying this was leading to a shift in U.S. strategy.

"Increasingly we're focusing now on giving our support to those Syrians on the ground who are organizing themselves and who are making clear that they want change," Nuland said.

"As we go forward we need to ensure that this process is Syrian led, that we are responding to their interests, their needs," she said.

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