|Video uploaded to YouTube by Syrian activists show scenes from Friday’s huge protest rally in Hama [AFP]|
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has removed the governor of Hama, one of the provinces at the heart of the ongoing protests, according to state television.
The sacking of Ahmad Khaled Abdel Aziz was announced on Saturday, a day after more than 400,000 people reportedly turned out in Hama city demanding the ouster of Assad and his government.
People filled the square around the central Clock Tower in what activists said was the biggest demonstration since the uprising began in March.
Referring to Assad’s recent speech at Damascus University in which he characterised the protesters as “germs” that Syria must inoculate itself against, a local activist said: “Here we are, the germs of Syria,” adding: “But we are big germs in huge numbers.”
He said there was no visible security presence in Hama, only checkpoints at the entrances. “There’s not even traffic police,” he told Al Jazeera.
|Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin reports from Damascus on Friday’s ‘massive rallies’|
The opposition has deep roots in Hama, a city of 700,000. In 1982, under the rule of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, the army stormed the city to crush a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, leaving about 20,000 people dead.
Syrian forces killed 28 civilians on Friday, a day of massive anti-regime rallies, the AFP news agency reported.
Most of the victims were killed in the Idlib province, where all week troops backed by tanks and armoured personnel carriers have swept through villages to crush dissent against Assad’s government.
“Sixteen people were killed” in Idlib, Ammar Qorabi, the head of the National Organisation for Human Rights, told AFP on Saturday.
Another 10 people were killed when security forces opened fire to disperse protests in several cities, including eight in the central protest hub of Homs and two in the Damascus neighbourhood of Qadam.
More than 1,360 civilians have been killed in the Assad government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests since mid-March, according to human rights groups.
Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Damascus on Saturday, said that in the past three months, there has been a young leadership emerging from the protests.
“They’re trying to organise themselves in committees. There are a few different committees emerging. One of them, the most credible one, is the local co-ordination commitee,” she said.
“At different levels you have people, the opposition figures, who are in the country [and] are the known faces and famous people who have been battling the regime for years.”
Sorrow over sacking
An activist in Hama who spoke to Al Jazeera on Saturday said the sacking of Abdul-Aziz was, surprisingly, met with some sorrow among protestors.
“He didn’t believe in killing people and used to go door to door to meet residents,” said the activist. “We think he was sacked because the protests are getting larger and larger and now we are afraid they will send a security guy to be governor.”
The sacking by Assad of Ahmed Abdul-Aziz, a former professor of international law at Damascus University, was published on SANA, the state-run news agency, which gave no reason for his dismissal. The governor was appointed in late February to a position often held in Syria for decades.
Following the killing of at least 67 protestors in a single day in Hama one month ago, Assad pledged an investigation, a sign of the regime’s nervousness over attacks on a city still deeply scarred by the killing in 1982 of between 20,000 and 30,000 civilians, ordered by Assad’s father, Hafez, in response to an armed uprising by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
But the sacking of the governor appears to have come in direct response to Friday’s massive protest, which had a carnival-like atmosphere centred around Assi Square, renamed by the mainly young protestors Freedom Square.
In Homs this afternoon around 7,000 mourners went to the funerals for five protesters killed yesterday by security forces, an activist told Al Jazeera, with mourners chanting “Leave” and “We will not forget our martyrs’ blood!”
The activist said that the body of Nashar was taken by secret police from the Burr private hospital yesterday who later told the family they could retrieve their son’s corpse only after pledging to have a public funeral.
As Al Jazeera first reported in April and again in May, the regime has systematically attempted to block injured protestors from receiving medical care, as well as withholding their bodies from burial.
Nashar’s family refused and received his body back anyway. During the funerals most shops and businesses were closed in Homs, said the activist.