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Sat, 02 Jul 2011 16:49 - Updated Sat, 02 Jul 2011 16:49

Syrian leader sacks governor after huge protests


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Beirut - Syrian President Bashar Assad dismissed the governor of the key central city of Hama on Saturday in apparent political payback after hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the largest demonstration yet against Assad's authoritarian regime.

The move, announced by the state-run news agency SANA, was seen by anti-government activists as the latest attempt by Assad to weed out potential weak links in his ruling system and possibly signaling a renewed crackdown on the city.

SANA's report gave no reason for the firing of Gov. Ahmed Abdul-Aziz a day after an estimated 300,000 people joined an anti-government rally in Hama, according to activists and YouTube videos of the event — marking the largest single turnout since the uprising began in March.

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

The surprising, massive outpouring in Hama could give renewed momentum to the anti-government uprising in Syria, which had settled into a cycle of protests and retreat in recent weeks.

An anti-Assad activist said Abdul-Aziz was viewed as leaning toward the protesters by reportedly urging security forces to avoid another bloodbath after at least 65 people were killed in a crackdown last month in Hama.

"(The governor) is accused of being sympathetic to the demonstrators," said Beirut-based Syrian activist Omar Idibi, who speaks on behalf of a network of anti-government activists.

It wasn't clear if Abdul-Aziz had ordered security forces to leave the city, however.

Another activist said the governor was a likely scapegoat by an embarrassed regime that has struggled to quell demonstrations.

"For the Baath party, they need to blame somebody," said Beirut-based activist Wissam Tarif, referring to Syria's ruling party.

Activists said Syrian government forces withdrew from Hama last month after the deadly assault on a demonstration in the city, which carries important symbolism as a center of resistance.

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