In Amman, Jordan, a Syrian man protests in front of the Syrian embassy. (Reuters )
Reporting from Beirut — Tens of thousands of Syrians demanding the downfall of the nation's autocratic regime poured into the streets of the central city of Hama on Friday in a powerful rebuttal to both President Bashar Assad's much-doubted entreaties to dialogue and his use of extreme force to suppress a popular revolt against his rule.
Video footage posted to the Internet showed crowds as far as the eye could see in the city infamous for a brutal 1982 crackdown by Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, against an Islamist revolt.
"The people want the downfall of the regime!" they chanted in a deafening roar, holding a massive Syrian flag as well as olive branches and roses in the city's central Asi Square.
Syrian security forces had launched a sweeping military assault on the city last week after massive protests led to the firing of the provincial governor. This week's crowd appeared to be as large as or larger, perhaps protected in part by the presence of U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert S. Ford. He visited the city Thursday and possibly remained Friday in what the State Department described as a show of solidarity with the people of Hama, enraging Syrian authorities who described it an American "incitement" and interference in the country's affairs.
Bracing bullets and tear gas from security forces and pro-regime gunmen, tens of thousands of Syrians also took to the streets of cities and towns, including the capital, Damascus, and the second largest city, Aleppo, after prayers Friday, many voicing their rejection of a "national dialogue" conference planned for Sunday.
Activists of a network called the Local Coordination Councils reported security forces and un-uniformed pro-regime enforcers opened fire on demonstrators and attacked them in several Damascus suburbs of Qaboon as well as in downtown Homs, where demonstrators tore down a statue of the elder Assad.
"Oh Hama, Duma is with you until death" they chanted in the restive Damascus suburb of Duma, according to activists. "Leave, Leave -- the people want to topple the regime."
Thousands of protesters in the ethnic Kurdish cities of Qamisli and Amouda chanted, "Azadi!" a call for freedom in a language and culture long suppressed by Assad's chauvinistic Arab regime.
Some observers speculated that security forces would focus their energies Friday on the vast belt of towns and cities around Damascus and the third-largest city of Homs, knowing that the mass demonstrations in Hama could inspire similar outbursts of civil disobedience.
"Around 2,000 protesters came out of the mosque and around it staging a peaceful protest, but that ended when ? members of the security forces and shabiha fired tear gas and live ammunition at protesters," a man who gave his name as Hossein told The Times in a rushed telephone interview from the streets of Dumeir, a Damascus suburb.
"There is still gunfire at this moment and they're raiding house by house, one after another," he said. "They're making random arrests and taking anyone they see in the streets. There is one martyr, at least."
Protests also broke out in the beleaguered towns of Idleb province, which until Hama erupted in mass protests were the focus of the Allawite Muslim-dominated security forces' violence.
Sandels is a special correspondent.