BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian demonstrators knew well the powerful symbolism at their feet: The streets where hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered to denounce President Bashar Assad were the same where an earlier generation was cut down by his father during a failed uprising 29 years ago.
Activists on Saturday now hope the huge outpouring a day earlier in the city of Hama — an estimated 300,000 people chanting against Assad’s regime — could re-energize the protest movement at a pivotal time.
Assad’s forces appear unable to sustain the blanket crackdowns of recent months and offer possible openings for opposition strongholds to expand in places such as Hama. In swift political payback, Assad on Saturday dismissed the Hama governor, Ahmed Abdul-Aziz, in a move that also could signal another offensive into the city and risk further international outrage.
“What happened in Hama was a catastrophe for the regime,” said Bassam Jaara, a Syrian opposition writer based in London.
Jaara and others believe Abdul-Aziz was fired for not calling in security forces to deal harshly with demonstrators. Others speculated he was made a scapegoat by regime officials embarrassed by the large turnout Friday — the largest single protest gathering since the revolt against Assad’s rule began in March.
Crowd estimates and other details in Syria cannot be independently verified. The Syrian government has banned most foreign media from the country and restricted coverage.
But there was little doubt the protests in Hama were staggering in scope. Hama residents clapped, chanted and sung in a main square after Friday prayers. They unfurled a black-white-and-red flag some 10,000 feet-long (3 kilometers-long).
“The Syrian flag in the square of freedom!” cried an excited activist videotaping the demonstration. Protesters swayed to a popular Egyptian ditty — the words changed into an anti-regime song.
In 1982, Assad’s late father, Hafez Assad, ordered his brother to quell a rebellion by Syrian members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement. The city was sealed and bombs dropped from above smashed swaths of the city and killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people, rights groups say.
The real number may never be known. Then, as now, reporters were not allowed to reach the area.
Last month, Hama was the scene of more bloodshed. Security forces withdrew after a violent crackdown against demonstrations that killed about 65 people.
Many of Friday’s protesters were encouraged by a lack of front-line security in the city, said Syrian-based activist Mustafa Osso and others.
“Protests will continue, and regions that haven’t demonstrated before will join in,” said Osso.
In the latest uprising, opposition groups say the regime has killed more than 1,400 people — mostly unarmed protesters — since mid-March. That includes at least 14 people killed Friday.
The government disputes the overall toll and blames the violence on “armed thugs.”
On Saturday, mourners buried at least two of those slain in Homs, a city near Hama, according to videos uploaded onto YouTube by anti-government activists.
The videos showed the bodies of men that activists identified as Homs residents Diaa al-Najjar and Bassem al-Saqlini. Al-Najjar’s face was surrounded with flowers, his body wrapped in the Syrian flag.
“To heaven we are going, martyrs in our millions!” mourners chanted as many of them clapped as they marched.
Syrian forces have pursued a patchwork approach to the crackdown recently, leaving some areas to demonstrate freely while harshly attacking in other places. The tactic suggests that Assad’s forces are under growing strain as they confront multiple protest hotbeds and try to cut off a refugee exodus into neighboring Turkey.
Beirut-based Syrian activist Omar Idibi, who speaks on behalf of a network of anti-government activists, said he feared that security forces operating in Homs would now turn their attention to Hama with the governor’s sacking.
“We worry. When they withdraw a governor from a city, they then attack,” Idibi said.