Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks in Damascus this month. Assad fired… (SANA, Associated Press )
Reporting from Beirut — Syrian President Bashar Assad fired the governor who oversaw the city of Hama on Saturday, a day after massive protests rocked the longtime center of opposition to his family's rule.
The official state news agency reported without comment that Assad had removed the governor of Hama province, Ahmad Khaled Abdul-Aziz, from his post.
Some observers speculated that the governor had been punished for being too lenient with the antigovernment protesters. But at the least it seemed likely that the firing was related to the turnout Friday in Hama, a city of more than 500,000 north of Damascus.
Activists said at least two dozen protesters were killed Friday when government security officers opened fire on marchers in various cities across Syria. But there were no reported casualties or clashes in Hama, and activists attributed this absence of violence to the previous withdrawal of security forces from the city.
It remained unclear why the government apparently decided to pull law enforcement personnel from Hama while maintaining a robust police presence elsewhere. There has been some speculation that the size and scope of the weekly protests have stretched the regime's ability to police them.
A coalition of opposition groups reported Saturday that state security was back in force in Hama and that the governor had been dismissed because he refused to allow lawmen to fire at demonstrators.
Assad, facing an almost four-month-long uprising, has vowed reforms and offered various concessions in a bid to end the rebellion.
He has also fired at least two other governors, including the overseer of Dara, the southern town that became the epicenter of the uprising. But the protests have continued inexorably each Friday after the Muslim call to prayer, with demonstrators demanding Assad's departure and rejecting the president's recent call for dialogue.
Hama has been a hub of Sunni Muslim hostility toward the four-decade rule of the Assad clan, which belongs to the Alawite minority, a Shiite sect. Some observers say that Sunni resentment of Alawite privilege in Assad's Syria is one motivating force behind the protests.
In 1982, the regime of Hafez Assad, the president's late father, oversaw a brutal crackdown against Sunni Islamist dissidents in Hama. Human rights advocates say thousands were killed and much of the old city leveled.
Special correspondent Alexandra Sandels in Beirut contributed to this report.