US ambassador in Syria Robert Ford (L) speaks to an unidentified US military personnel on June 20, 2011. (Loual Beshara/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The U.S. ambassador to Syria has positioned himself in the restive city of Hama ahead of planned demonstrations this weekend, State Department officials said Thursday, in an unusual move that appears aimed at discouraging new violence against protesters.

Ambassador Robert Ford acted without official Syrian blessing in traveling to the city of 700,000 that has been at the center of the country’s four-month-old uprising, U.S. officials said. Ford met with townspeople and visited a hospital where injured protesters are being treated.

He planned to stay overnight with the intention of “seeing the activity” on Friday, when thousands were expected to take to the streets following weekly prayer services, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

“For him to go personally at this time and stand with the people of Hama expresses in physical terms, not to mention political terms, our view that the people of Hama have a right to express themselves peacefully,” Nuland said.

The U.S. Embassy in Damascus informed the Syrian government in advance that embassy employees were traveling to Hama and did specifically mention Ford, said Nuland. Ford’s vehicle was allowed to pass through at least one military checkpoint en route.

Hama resumed its place as the focal point of the anti-government uprising this week after security forces renewed their assault on the demonstrators after a nearly three-week lull. After government troops vacated the city last month to deal with protests elsewhere, Hama took on a festive air, with daily demonstrations and claims by protesters that their city was liberated.

Security forces have been gathering on the outskirts of Hama for several days, and Nuland said U.S. officials were gravely concerned that the government of Bashar al-Assad was planning a major assault.

“A week ago Hama was the good-news story. It was the town where people were being allowed to protest peacefully,” she said. “And today we see security forces ringing the city.”