DAMASCUS //Syrian authorities sought to regain full control over Hama yesterday, as security forces swept into the city arresting suspected dissidents and shooting more than a dozen people, according to activists.
The move came just days after a peaceful anti-government rally in the city, 210 kilometres north of Damascus, which drew as many as 500,000 people on to the streets - the largest act of defiance in Syria since the uprising began in mid-March.
Security forces had been pulled out under an agreement with local leaders, giving demonstrators free rein. That policy was sharply reversed yesterday however, with government forces trying to re-establish their street-level authority.
Residents blocked roads with stones and debris in some neighbourhoods in an effort to keep security units from entering, according to activists, although with little effect.
"A large security force entered the city at dawn on Monday and has been making a wave of arrests since then," said one civil rights campaigner in Damascus. "They have a wanted list and are trying to detain all the people on it. At least 13 civilians have been wounded in shootings and are in the Hournai hospital."
The activist, who asked not to be named, said army units had not been dispatched into Hama, but said an "aggressive" security operation was under way.
"After last Friday's protest, I think the authorities will be much more forceful to try to take control of the city again," he said.
Some activists had recently begun referring to Hama as "liberated". That brought an immediate response, with President Bashar Al Assad sacking the provincial governor on Saturday, just months after he had been appointed.
Although no formal reason was given for the decision, the timing was seen by Syrian analysts as a signal Damascus felt local officials had been too soft in ceding the streets to protesters and trying to avoid confrontation.
Last month, more than 60 protesters were shot dead by security forces in Hama during Friday demonstrations, according to human rights groups. That incident led to government forces being pulled back in an attempt to defuse tensions.
Although the move prevented clashes or repeats of violence, it appears to have emboldened dissidents and significantly boosted the number of people taking part in public rallies demanding sweeping political changes to Syria's decades-old system of autocratic, one-party rule and dominance by security forces.
Hama, a focal point for anti-government protests, has long been synonymous with rebellion.
In 1982, the then president Hafez Al Assad, Bashar's father, sent military forces to smash a militant revolt there, killing between 10,000 and 20,000 people in the process, according to human rights monitors.
This time protesters insist the nature of the uprising is markedly different, with peaceful civilian demonstrators defying the authorities, rather than armed Islamic extremists.
The government insists it is, once again, combating a violent insurgency, a claim denied by activists, who point to Friday's peaceful march in the absence of security forces as evidence they are not involved in violence. No photographic evidence survived the destructive 1982 military operations, which included artillery attacks on Hama's old city.
Modern technologies have, however, enabled today's dissidents to film security operations and publicise government actions online.
Security forces have killed more than 1,400 civilians since March, according to human rights monitors, drawing sharp condemnation of the Syrian authorities from the international community.
The United Nations chief, Ban Ki-Moon, has called for an immediate halt to violent suppression of protests and urged Mr Al Assad to implement wide-reaching democratic reforms.
Syrian officials insist those reforms are now under way, promising freedom and democracy in the country by no later than the end of the year.
A National Dialogue initiative by the authorities is due to hold a meeting in Damascus on July 10.
Invitations have been sent to leading dissidents but they have made it clear they will not accept dialogue unless preconditions are met, including that thousands of political prisoners are freed and a security crackdown finished.
Opposition activists say that, despite government promises, no concrete steps towards democracy have yet been taken.