U.S. ambassador visits south Syrian protest town

Reuters News
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Posted: Aug 23, 2011 8:58 AM
U.S. ambassador visits south Syrian protest town

AMMAN (Reuters) - The U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, made a surprise trip to the town of Jassem in southern Deraa province Tuesday, residents said, his second visit since July to an area rocked by pro-democracy demonstrations.

"He came by car this morning, although Jassem is swarming with secret police. He got out and spent a good time walking round. He was careful not to be seen talking with people, apparently not to cause them harm," one resident told Reuters.

The visit follows a trip Ford made to Hama in July in a gesture of international support for Syrians protesting against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, two weeks before the city, scene of a 1982 massacre by the military, was stormed by tanks.

Syrian authorities said Ford's visit constituted interference in the country's internal affairs and banned Western diplomats from leaving Damascus and its outskirts.

Ford, the first U.S. ambassador in Damascus since the 2005 assassination of Lebanese politician Rafik al-Hariri, has been outspoken in criticizing Syrian authorities for firing at protesters, with human rights groups saying at least 2,000 civilians have been killed.

Assad's forces attacked Jassem, 30 km east of the occupied Golan Heights, in May, killing at least 12 residents after large protests in the town. They cut off electricity and communications, in tactics common in their assaults on cities and towns across Syria.

Jassem residents issued a declaration after the attack dismissing assertions by the authorities that they had asked the army to enter the town of 40,000 people to "cleanse it of armed terrorist groups," and emphasizing what they described as their right to peaceful protest.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by David Stamp)