US Closes Syria Embassy as Assad Forces Step Up Homs Assault

Posted February 6th, 2012 at 8:05 pm (UTC-5)
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The United States has closed its embassy in Syria and pulled all remaining diplomats out of the country, as Syrian government forces intensified a rocket and mortar assault on the opposition protest hub of Homs.

The State Department says Ambassador Robert Ford and other diplomatic staff left Damascus for the Jordanian capital, Amman, on Monday, leaving Poland to provide emergency consular services to Americans in Syria. It said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government “failed to respond adequately” to U.S. concerns about worsening security around the downtown embassy.

But U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Aaron Snipe told VOA that diplomatic ties remain open with the Assad government and the Syrian people. He said Ambassador Ford will continue engaging with the Syrian people from his new base in Washington.

Syrian opposition activists say pro-Assad forces bombarded residential areas of Homs with rockets and shells on Monday, killing more than 40 people. They say security forces also killed at least a dozen civilians in other parts of the country.

The bombardment of Homs marked the third day of a government assault that began with what the activists say was a massacre of at least 200 residents late Friday into Saturday. Syrian state news agency SANA blamed the violence on “armed terrorists” whom it said were firing mortars in the city. It also said 14 security personnel killed in fighting with rebels were buried on Monday.

Casualty figures could not be independently confirmed because Syria restricts independent reporting.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday he is “appalled” by the Syrian government's assault on Homs, calling it “unacceptable before humanity.” In a written statement, he said Russia and China's veto of a Security Council resolution on Syria last Saturday gives “no license” to Damascus to step up attacks on the population. He said no government can commit such acts “without its legitimacy being eroded.”

The Western and Arab-backed draft resolution would have endorsed an Arab League plan for Mr. Assad to step aside, a key demand of the Syrian opposition, which has been waging an 11-month uprising against the Syrian leader's autocratic rule. Russia and China said they vetoed the measure because they perceived it as taking sides in a domestic conflict and providing a possible pretext for foreign military intervention.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Monday he believes the Syrian crisis can be resolved without military intervention. He vowed to keep up the pressure on Mr. Assad through sanctions and diplomacy.

Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday Western and Arab criticism of Moscow's veto verged on “hysteria.” Lavrov is due to travel to Damascus Tuesday along with Russia's foreign intelligence chief for talks with Mr. Assad.

Also Monday, Britain recalled its ambassador to Syria for consultations and summoned the Syrian envoy in London to the Foreign Office to express “abhorrence” at the country's violence. British Foreign Minister William Hague also criticized the Russian and Chinese vetoes as “a grave error of judgment.” He called Mr. Assad's government “a doomed as well as a murdering regime.”

Syrian army defectors Monday announced the formation of a military council to “liberate” the country from Mr. Assad's rule. The group, based in neighboring Turkey, named the head of “The Higher Revolutionary Council” as General Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh, the highest ranking deserter to have defected so far.

Syria's opposition uprising has escalated in recent months into open conflict between rebels and pro-Assad forces. Last month, the United Nations estimated the death toll from the unrest at 5,400 before it stopped updating the figure because of difficulties in obtaining information.