BEIRUT, Lebanon - The Syrian city of Hama, bombed into submission three decades ago as an uprising there was crushed, became a new center for protest and violence Friday in the current uprising in that country.
Activists said troops opened fire on a crowd of thousands and killed 34.
People nationwide poured into the streets in huge numbers, defying the crackdown and a government chokehold on the Internet.
One of the largest protests calling for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad was in Hama, where his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, ordered thousands killed in 1982 and emerged to rule uncontested, the carnage seared into the national memory.
"It is a real massacre," said a witness who took part in Friday's Hama protests and fled the gunfire. "People were running, shouting."
Friday's protests appeared to be the biggest since the uprising began in mid-March, with people gathering in ever larger numbers in cities and towns across the country, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Protests also swept through several Damascus suburbs, as well as the capital's central Midan neighborhood.
The movement has been loosely organized on Facebook pages and increasingly inspired by footage of the crackdown on YouTube and other video-sharing sites, but Friday's Internet cuts appeared not to deter participants. Foreign journalists are barred from the country.
Abdul-Rahman said the increase in the numbers of protesters reflected the lack of trust in concessions offered by the government.
In Hama, the witness and activists said 100,000 people took part in the protest, making it one of the largest in the city since the start of the 11-week-old uprising. Thirty-four people were killed, Abdul-Rahman said.
Rights groups say 1,100 people have been killed nationwide since mid-March.
"Today's protests are a reaction to the so-called overtures by the regime, which has lost all credibility," said Najib al-Ghadban, a U.S.-based Syrian academic and political activist. "It's the people saying we will not accept this anymore."
Ghadban said the Hama demonstration was especially significant, calling it "a qualitative leap that will encourage others to do the same."
He said most of the protesters were born after the 1982 massacre and did not harbor the same fear as their elders.
Tunisia's justice ministry said the country's ousted strongman and his wife would soon be tried in absentia.
Spokesman Kadhem Zine el-Abidine said Friday he expected the trial of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and his wife to begin before the end of the month.
The proceedings stem from caches containing an estimated $29 million in foreign currency, as well as jewels, drugs, and arms, which were discovered in the presidential palace and elsewhere after
the couple fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14 amid street protests.
Ben Ali and members of his family are facing 88 charges, including money laundering, premeditated murder, and inciting the population to kill one another.
- Associated Press