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Hundreds of thousands protest in Syria

BEIRUT -- Hundreds of thousands of Syrians poured into the streets of the opposition stronghold Hama on Friday, bolstered by a gesture of support from the American and French ambassadors who visited the city where a massacre nearly 30 years ago came to symbolize the ruthlessness of the Assad dynasty.

The visit by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford drew swift condemnation from the Syrian government, which said the unauthorized trip was proof that Washington was inciting violence in the Arab nation.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the charge "absolute rubbish."

Mass demonstrations also erupted in cities and towns nationwide, triggering a crackdown that killed at least 13 people, activists said. But Hama's protest was by far the largest, galvanizing residents in a city that has drawn the biggest crowds since the revolt began nearly four months ago.

Although President Bashar Assad still has a firm grip on power, international criticism over the brutal crackdown has left his regime shaken and isolated.

The protesters have yet to come out in sustained numbers in the largest cities, the capital Damascus and Aleppo, although there were scattered protests Friday and security forces killed one protester in Damascus. The regime has staged large demonstrations in the capital, including on Friday, to showcase its support.

Hama poses a potential dilemma for the Syrian regime because of its place as a symbol of opposition to the rule of the Assad family. In 1982, the late Hafez Assad ordered troops to crush a rebellion by Islamist forces, killing between 10,000 and 25,000 people, rights activists say.

It appeared that the latest crowds in Hama approached those from a week earlier, when an estimated 300,000 people protested, although the figures could not be confirmed.

Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted media coverage.

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