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U.S. ambassador travels to volatile Syrian city

From Elise Labott and Dan Merica, CNN
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, left, speaks to a U.S. military attache on a guided government tour in Syria, June 20, 2011.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, left, speaks to a U.S. military attache on a guided government tour in Syria, June 20, 2011.
  • NEW: The State Department says Syrian authorities were told of the planned visit
  • The Syrian town of Hama has been wracked with violence
  • The U.S. ambassador to Syria visited the town Thursday
  • State Department says it was to show U.S. support for Syrians fighting for democracy

Washington (CNN) -- The U.S. ambassador to Syria visited the embattled town of Hama Thursday as part of what the State Department called an effort to show U.S. support for Syrians fighting for democracy.

Ambassador Robert Ford visited Hama "to make absolutely clear with his physical presence that we stand with those Syrians who are expressing their right to speak for change," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Hama has been wracked with violence and a general strike this week after a series of peaceful demonstrations, including a huge anti-government demonstration last Friday. A fierce crackdown ensued in the area, with activists and Human Rights Watch reporting many arrests and deaths.

President Bashar al-Assad fired the Hama provincial governor Saturday and security forces removed tanks to the outskirts of the city, a sign that the tensions there could be easing.

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Ambassador Ford met with over a dozen Hama residents and visited a hospital that has treated some of those wounded in the security forces crackdown, Nuland said, adding that he was greeted with a "very warm welcome."

The state news agency SANA reported that a Foreign Ministry source accused Ford of going to Hama without obtaining prior permission from the government. According to the report, the Foreign Ministry official said Ford's visit was "clear evidence of the U.S. involvement in the ongoing events in Syria and its bids to aggravate the situations which destabilize Syria.''

Nuland, however, said U.S. officials notified the Syrian government that an embassy team was traveling to Hama.

"The embassy informed Syrian officials that an embassy delegation, without specifying whom, would be heading to Hama. And they then proceeded to make their way there and were allowed to proceed," Nuland said.

Ford's delegation did not include any official Syrian "handlers," Nuland said, adding that Syrian authorities allowed him through check points to reach the town.

"For him to go personally at this time and stand with the people of Hama, I think expresses in physical terms -- not to mention political terms -- our view that the people of Hama have the right to express themselves peacefully and that we are concerned about the posture that the security forces have taken," Nuland said, adding that Ford plans to stay through protests planned on Friday.

It is unclear whether Hama residents will turn out for nationwide demonstrations on Friday after Muslim prayers.

Last month, Hama was the site of violent crackdowns by security forces that killed 60 protesters.

The city is a sensitive spot for Syrian authorities. In 1982, it was the scene of a brutal military crackdown targeting Sunni Muslims by the Alawite-dominated government of Hafez al-Assad, the current president's late father. Thousands were killed, with Human Rights Watch putting the toll at 10,000.

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