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ASSAD SACKS GOVERNOR OF HAMA, SENDS MORE TROOPS TO IDLIB

The embattled Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has sacked the governor of the restive central city of Hama where 500,000 people demonstrated against his iron-fisted rule on Friday and sent troop re-enforcements to the northwestern province of Idlib.

The dismissal of Gov. Ahmed Abdul-Aziz was seen as the latest attempt by President Assad to weed out potential weak links in his ruling system and possibly signal a renewed crackdown on the city.


The state-run news agency SANA gave no reason for the firing Mr. Abdul-Aziz a day after an estimated half a million people joined an anti-government rally in Hama -- marking the largest single turnout since the uprising began in March.

Crowd estimates and other details cannot be independently verified. The Syrian government has banned most foreign media from the country and restricted coverage.

Syrian forces withdrew from the city last month after clashes that left at least 65 dead. Some protest organizers now worry that the sacking of the governor could be the prelude for government troops to push back into the city - which carries important symbolism as a center of resistance.

In 1982, President Assad’s late father, Hafez Al Assad, stormed the city to crush an uprising, leaving between 10,000 and 25,000 people dead, rights groups say.

Beirut-based activist Wissam Tarif said ousting the Hama governor suggests Mr. Assad is looking for scapegoats as protest crowds continue to defy his forces.

“He doesn’t have the tools to suppress the protests. For the Baath party, they need to blame somebody,” he said, referring to Syria’s ruling party.

Another Beirut-based activist, Omar Idibi, said the Hama governor was respected by residents for trying to avoid further bloodshed. Idibi said he feared the governor’s sacking would now unleash security forces to try crush demonstrators.

Meanwhile, the Syrian army deployed more troops to the northwestern province of Idlib where most of Friday’s 28 victims were killed.

“Sixteen people were killed” in Idlib on Friday, Ammar Qorabi, the head of the National Organization for Human Rights, told AFP in Nicosia on Saturday.

Three of them were women who died when the army shelled a chicken hatchery in the village of Al-Bara, Mr. Qorabi said.

Waves of protesters flooded the streets nationwide on Friday to demand the overthrow of the regime.

(Mustapha Ajbaili, a senior editor at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at Mustapha.ajbaili@mbc.net)