DAMASCUS // Protesters rallied across Syria yesterday, emphatically refusing a government-sponsored national dialogue until a violent security crackdown is stopped and dissidents are released from jail.
Hundreds of thousands demonstrated nationwide, according to activists and video footage posted online, with at least 13 people killed and dozens wounded when live ammunition fired by security units hit protesters in Damascus, Idleb and Hama.
The number of casualties could not be independently confirmed, and some human-rights groups said three to four people died.
Hama, Syria's fourth-largest city, continued its defiance despite intensified security operations and sweeping arrests, with opposition groups claiming 450,000 people took part in a mass rally following Friday prayers yesterday.
The US ambassador Robert Ford and the French ambassador Eric Chevallier travelled to the city to meet residents and activists on Thursday and yesterday - the first time foreign diplomats have made such high-profile visits to a demonstration area.
Hama has become a centre of the four-month-old uprising, emerging as a major challenge to the autocratic regime headed by President Bashar Al Assad.
Activists had feared a military assault was being planned on Hama but said security units were pulling back by yesterday morning, allowing protesters to gather largely unmolested.
The US diplomatic visit brought a sharp rebuke from the Syrian authorities, with the interior ministry saying American embassy officials had met with "saboteurs and incited them to violence, protest and rejection of dialogue".
Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Mr Al Assad, said Mr Ford must have co-operated with "gunmen in the streets" to gain access to the city.
"This is considered an escalation on the part of the US ambassador. Never before has an ambassador visited a city with a problem like the case of Hama without [official] permission," she was quoted as saying by Sana, Syria's official news agency.
US officials dismissed the claim as "rubbish". Syrian activists said Mr Ford had been welcomed to Hama by residents, who showered his car with flowers and olive branches.
Syrian authorities insist they are fighting Islamist insurgents, backed by foreign states, a claim dismissed by activists, human-rights groups and international organisations including the United Nations.
"The fact that western diplomats went to Hama and saw the situation with their own eyes is very significant," said an independent Syrian analyst, on condition of anonymity.
"It increases foreign pressure on Syria and reminds the authorities that the world is watching what they do," he said. "It will also confirm to the West that the uprising is overwhelmingly peaceful, not a violent Islamic mutiny as the regime claims."
Hama, the site of an infamous military attack in 1982 in which tens of thousands of residents were killed, along with militants from the Muslim Brotherhood, has posed a quandary for the Syrian authorities. An earlier security assault that killed more than 60 protesters in a single day early last month failed to halt the demonstrations. When a softer approach was adopted, the protests grew massively and remained peaceful, a fact at odds with official narratives.
With activists proclaiming the city "liberated", the liberal provincial governor was sacked last Saturday and security forces redeployed to the area, army units taking up position on the city outskirts.
"Hama has put the regime in a cul de sac," said one dissident. "If the regime smashes it with the military, it will only make the uprising bigger as more blood is spilled. But if it cannot stop the huge protests in Hama, it is a sign Damascus is slowly losing control over the country."
Searching for a way out, Mr Al Assad has proposed a national dialogue meeting, scheduled to take place tomorrow. However, the move has failed to attract the involvement of any major elements of the opposition and, as such, appears unlikely to result in a solution.
In addition to protesters' emphatic rejection of the talks - yesterday's chants included "Leave Bashar, no dialogue" - leading dissidents say they will not take part in negotiations until thousands of political prisoners are released and military operations against protest areas are stopped.
The protests further underlined the difficulties Syria's one-party, police-state system of governance has had in stamping out growing dissent. Although areas hit by security forces remain quiet for a time, demonstrators soon return. Rastan and Talbiseh, near Homs, and Kisweh, south of Damascus, were quiet last Friday, following deadly security operations and mass arrests. Yesterday, however, residents took to the streets in strength in all three places and demanded the downfall of the regime.
Protesters also turned out in large numbers in Damascus suburbs, including Qaborn, Kadam and Hajar Aswad, while in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor more than 75,000 people joined an anti-government march, according to activists.
Pro-government rallies were also staged in a number of areas yesterday, including the northern city of Aleppo, which has yet to move decisively into the uprising.
Mr Al Assad has retained a strong base of support, especially among minority communities, including Christians, who believe he has delivered security and stability, as well as economic modernisation. His supporters also approve of his pledge to undertake a comprehensive political reform agenda that would lead to democracy by the end of the year.