- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The United States called on the Syrian government to withdraw its military forces from one of the Middle Eastern country’s biggest cities on Tuesday as hundreds of thousands of opposition members gathered there to protest President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Eleven protesters were killed and 35 were wounded in the northwestern city of Hama, as the State Department, along with the British Foreign Office, spoke out against the government violence.

“We urge the government of Syria to immediately halt its intimidation-and-arrest campaign, to pull its security forces back from Hama and other cities, and to allow Syrians to express their opinions freely so that a genuine transition to democracy can take place,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said any violent repression in Hama would “only further undermine the regime’s legitimacy.”

“No meaningful political dialogue can take place while there is a brutal military crackdown,” he said.

“[Britain] has made clear that President Assad must reform or step aside,” Mr. Hague added. “If the regime continues to choose the path of brutal repression, pressure from the international community will only increase.”

Over the weekend, 300,000 protesters burned tires and created roadblocks out of sand and other materials to obstruct government forces. On Monday, the Syrian military approached the city in tanks and tractors, blocking roads and attacking protesters, sometimes during morning prayers.

“A week ago, Hama was the positive example of a city in Syria where peaceful demonstrations were allowed,” Mrs. Nuland said. “Today, we see Hama surrounded by Syrian security forces. So we’re going in the wrong direction.”

Government violence is nothing new in Hama, where 48 protesters were killed June 3. Nearly 30 years ago, Mr. Assad’s now-deceased father, Hafez Assad, then-president of Syria, brutally repressed an anti-government protest in the city in 1982, killing some 20,000 citizens.

“We’d like to see the violence stop,” Mrs. Nuland said. “We’d like to see peaceful demonstrators allowed, and we’d like to see a real dialogue begin. We want to see political prisoners released. We want to see repression and torture ending in Syrian jails.”

Mr. Assad’s administration has blamed “armed thugs” and foreign conspiracies for the unrest in the country since mid-March, but human rights activists say the government is to blame for the 1,300 civilian deaths and more than 10,000 refugees.

Syria has barred or restricted all foreign reporters from the country, making it difficult to verify opposition leaders’ claims.

*This article is based in part on wire service reports.