Tens of thousands of Syrians protest in central city of Hama

The New York Times reports:

Tens of thousands of protesters poured Friday into the streets of Hama, a Syrian city abandoned by the military and security forces, gathering in the country’s biggest demonstration in nearly four months of unrest and staking a festive claim to a region that bore the brunt of a ferocious government crackdown a generation ago.

The scenes of residents rallying in a central square there, captured by activists on video and circulated on the Internet, seemed to signal a new stage in an uprising that has so far only aspired to rival the mass protests in Egypt and Tunisia, where authoritarian leaders were eventually forced to step down. Protesters exploited at least a temporary vacuum in the official security presence in Hama to stage a panorama of dissent as celebratory as it was angry.

“Leave! Leave!” protesters chanted to a hip-hop beat.

The military and security forces withdrew last month from Hama for reasons that remain unclear. But the move seemed to reflect a compelling, if ambiguous, turn in an uprising that until recently was marked by repeated clashes between protesters and armed troops.

After weeks of stalemate, a new dynamic has emerged recently in Syria. The opposition gathered Monday in a rare meeting in Damascus, government officials are promising reform in coming weeks and protesters have shown a resilience that seems more and more difficult for the government to suppress.

The most visible shift has occurred in Hama, where a government crackdown in 1982 made the city synonymous with the brutality of Syria’s leadership. Since the withdrawal last month, protests have gathered momentum. Each night, youths have converged on Aasi Square, which they have renamed Freedom Square. On successive Fridays, crowds have grown bigger, surpassing 10,000 last week, diplomats say.

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