US: Diplomats in Syria Must Have Freedom of Movement

Posted July 20th, 2011 at 9:55 pm (UTC-5)
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The United States has condemned a Syrian government order prohibiting the U.S. and French ambassadors from traveling outside Damascus without permission, after they angered the government by visiting the flashpoint city of Hama this month.

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman Wednesday said diplomats must be allowed to travel freely throughout Syria in order to document a brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters. She noted that the Syrian government refuses to allow international media, aid workers or human rights personnel freedom of access.

The spokeswoman said the U.S. will respond accordingly if the government in Damascus inhibits the ability of diplomats to effectively carry out their responsibilities within Syria.

Earlier Wednesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem announced the restrictions for U.S. envoy Robert Ford and France's Eric Chevallier. He said if they defy the order, Syria will impose a ban on all diplomats leaving the capital.

Moallem added that Syria has not expelled the two envoys because it wants to develop better relations with the United States and France. Ford and Chevallier say they traveled to Hama to show solidarity with residents who are under pressure from the government's crackdown on dissent.

Meanwhile, activists say elite Syrian forces have surrounded the Damascus suburb of Harasta as part of their efforts to stem growing unrest in the capital.

The Reuters news agency quotes witnesses as saying “hundreds of Fourth Division troops” have sealed off all of Harasta's entrances. One resident quoted by the news agency Wednesday said the special forces are wearing combat fatigues, helmets, ammunition belts and carrying assault rifles. Water, electricity and phones have been cut. Activists said dozens of arrests were carried out.

Earlier this week, the rights group Amnesty International expressed concern that Syria is torturing scores of men who were detained last Saturday and Sunday after mass arrests in the Damascus suburbs. Amnesty said Syria is holding the men incommunicado after arresting them in a number of raids, particularly in the suburb of Qatana. The group wants Syria to reveal the men's whereabouts and ensure they are protected from torture and other ill treatment.

It is difficult to verify the accounts of the violence in Syria because its government has barred most foreign media from reporting and traveling freely in the country.