Syria accuses US of inciting violence as ambassador arrives amid mass protests

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Hundreds of thousands of Syrians poured into the streets of the opposition stronghold Hama yesterday, 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 symbolise the ruthlessness of the Assad dynasty.

The visit by US ambassador Robert Ford drew condemnation from the Syrian government, which said the unauthorised trip was proof that Washington was inciting violence in the Arab nation.

US 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 the protest in Hama was by far the largest, galvanising residents in a city that has drawn the biggest crowds since the revolt began nearly four months ago.

Although President Bashar al-Assad still has a firm grip on power, international criticism over the brutal crackdown has left his regime shaken and isolated as it struggles to contain a protest movement that refuses to die.

The protesters have yet to come out in sustained numbers in the largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, but there were scattered protests yesterday, and security forces killed one protester in Damascus. As it has done so throughout the crisis, the regime staged a large demonstration in the capital yesterday.

In recent days, Hama residents have largely sealed off their city, by setting up makeshift checkpoints with burning tyres and concrete blocks to prevent security forces from storming into the city.

"As long as we have no security forces, we have no violence," a Hama resident told The Associated Press yesterday, asking that his name not be published out of fear for his safety.

Last week an estimated 300,000 people protested in the city. Activists estimated that yesterday's turnout was at least 200,000.