Syrians take to the streets as regime lashes at U.S.

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BEIRUT — Hundreds of thousands of Syrians carrying olive branches and shouting for the downfall of President Bashar Assad’s regime streamed Friday into the flashpoint city of Hama, where the U.S. and French ambassadors traveled in a strong show of support for the protest movement.

Mass demonstrations also erupted in cities and towns nationwide, triggering a crackdown that killed at least 13 people and wounding more than 40, activists said. But Hama’s demonstration was by far the largest and most closely watched.

Two witnesses said crowds were swelling in the central city, which has become a focal point of the uprising and has drawn the largest crowds since the revolt began nearly four months ago.

“People are chanting, ‘We only kneel to God,’ one of the witnesses told the AP by telephone, as the sound of the crowd was heard in the background. He asked for anonymity, fearing for his personal safety.

Another activist estimated the demonstration was even larger than last Friday’s turnout of around 300,000 — possibly encouraged by the ambassadors’ visits.

“There was no violence. As long as we have no security forces, we have no violence,” said the activist, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisals.

Hama poses a potential dilemma for the Syrian regime because of its place as a symbol of opposition to the rule of the Assad family. In 1982, the late Hafez Assad ordered troops to crush a rebellion by Islamist forces, killing between 10,000 and 25,000 people, rights activists say.

A major offensive could make the city a fresh rallying cry for the opposition, but Assad’s regime also does not want a repeat of last Friday’s stunning rally, when an estimated 300,000 people protested.

The U.S. and French ambassadors traveled to Hama on Thursday and left on Friday before the protests began, according to officials in Washington and Paris.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford’s trip drew strong condemnation from the Syrian government, which said the visit was unauthorized and a clear sign that Washington was inciting unrest in the Arab nation. Relations between the U.S. and Syria are chronically strained over Assad’s close ties with Iran.

“The presence of the U.S. ambassador in Hama without obtaining prior permission from the Foreign Ministry as stipulated by instructions distributed repeatedly to all the embassies is clear evidence of the U.S. involvement in the ongoing events in Syria,” the state-run news agency reported Friday, citing an unnamed “official source” at the Foreign Ministry.

The U.S. is trying to “aggravate the situations which destabilize Syria,” the statement said.

A video posted on YouTube showed an SUV driving near what appeared to be the giant clock in Hama’s central Assi Square as young men chanted: “People want the downfall of the regime.” People tossed flowers and olive branches onto the vehicle, which the person making the video said was carrying Ford.

Later Friday, pro-regime activists called for a demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to protest Ford’s trip to Hama.

In Washington on Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Ford “spent the day expressing our deep support for the right of the Syrian people to assemble peacefully and to express themselves.”

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