Nearly Half Million Syrians Protest in Flashpoint City
Rights activists told Western news media that crowds in Hama topped more than 450,000 - one of the largest gatherings since the uprising began four months ago.
Activists in Syria also say security forces have raided a Damascus suburb to quell an overnight protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Security forces reportedly fired bullets at civilians participating in the demonstration.
The Reuters news agency reported at least four dead in the siege and numerous injuries.
In Hama, the Associated Press reported that U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford left the city by midafternoon as crowds swelled.
An activist in Syria told VOA that Ford was given videos from residents showing alleged human rights violation by Syrian forces. The ambassador's presence attracted notice from residents, who she says threw flowers at his motorcade to show their appreciation.
The Syrian foreign ministry said Thursday that Ford's presence in Hama without prior permission constitutes "clear evidence" of a U.S. attempt to "increase tension and damage Syria's security and stability."
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Ford met with a dozen people on Thursday in a visit designed to show solidarity with protesters.
She said Ford has hoped to stay in the city until late Friday and that the U.S. embassy had informed the Syrian government that an embassy team was travelling to the city.
Earlier, a Syrian activist monitoring developments in Hama told VOA in a telephone interview that dozens of families fled the city Thursday fearing a military crackdown. She said security forces have surrounded Hama with tanks, and that troops have detained more than 100 people.
The activist confirmed reports from rights groups that at least 25 people have been killed and more than 40 wounded in Hama in recent days. Troops had pushed through improvised barriers and roadblocks set up by Hama residents after massive anti-government protests last week.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Syria to stop the deadly crackdown. Ban asked the Syrian leadership to grant access in the country to U.N. aid workers and a fact-finding mission.
Rights groups say Syrian security forces have killed at least 1,400 civilians since mid-March while trying to suppress the anti-government uprising. The Syrian government says terrorists and Islamist militants have killed hundreds of security personnel during the same period.