US ambassador to Syria visits town in Deraa in unannounced visit

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The US ambassador to Syria on Tuesday visited a town in the south of the country where 15 people were killed last week, an embassy spokesman said.

“Ambassador Robert Ford went this morning to Jassem, 65 kilometres (about 42 miles) south of Damascus as part of his routine diplomatic duties,” the spokesman, who declined to be named, told AFP.

Ford returned to the embassy after the visit, the spokesman added.

Jassem is in southern Deraa province, epicentre of anti-regime protests that broke out in mid-March, where according to activists 15 people were killed on Friday by security forces when they opened fire to crush a demonstration.

Ford in July angered Syrian authorities when he visited the flashpoint central city of Hama, along with the French ambassador to Syria Eric Chevallier.

The July 8 visit came after two huge protests in Hama during which almost half a million people rallied each time against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to activists.

During the visit to Hama the US envoy met several protesters and the embassy later issued a statement saying Ford had wanted to see for himself developments on the ground and that the visit was not aimed at incitement.

The ambassador “wanted to see with his own eyes what was happening on the ground,” said at the time US embassy spokesman JJ Harder, as “the lack of uninhibited access for international media makes this even more important.”

“Happily,” Ford “did not witness violence from either the government or the protesters,” he said at the time.

Damascus swiftly denounced the move as an incitement to violence and a meddling in Syria’s internal affairs.

“The presence of the US ambassador in Hama without previous permission is obvious proof of the implication of the United States in the ongoing events, and of their attempts to increase (tensions), which damage Syria’s security and stability,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Syria’s interior ministry claimed that Ford had met “saboteurs” in Hama “who erected checkpoints, cut traffic and prevented citizens from going to work.”

Ford “incited these saboteurs to violence, to demonstrate and to refuse dialogue” with Assad’s government, the interior ministry said.