Middle East

Syria warns U.S., French envoys, apologizes to Qatar

A pro-regime march in support of the reform program. AFP-SANA. -7-20-2011

DAMASCUS/DOHA/ NICOSIA: Syria launched a diplomatic offensive Wednesday, warning French and U.S. ambassadors they risked expulsion if they breached a travel ban on leaving Damascus, while issuing an apology to Qatar for an attack by demonstrators on its embassy that prompted it to suspend work in the country.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem warned the French and U.S. ambassadors not to travel outside Damascus after they both visited the flashpoint central city of Hama July 7.

“We will impose a ban on any [diplomatic] travel more than 25 kilometers outside Damascus, if the ambassadors continue to ignore [our] guidance,” Moallem told the envoys at a meeting broadcast by state television.

“I hope that we will not be forced to impose the ban,” he added.

“We did not expel the two ambassadors because we had hoped to maintain better relations in future.”

Damascus reacted furiously to the visit, accusing the U.S. ambassador of seeking to undermine the stability of Syria and calling in both ambassadors for consultations.

The Syrian authorities accused them of traveling to Hama without authorization, but Washington insisted Damascus had been notified in advance.

The Foreign Ministry called Ford’s presence in Hama “obvious proof of the implication of the United States in the ongoing events, and of their attempts to increase [tensions], which damage Syria’s security and stability.”

Embassy press attache JJ Harder insisted Ford “certainly did not incite anyone to anything” and that the ambassador “wanted to see with his own eyes what was happening on the ground.”

Mobs stormed the American and French embassies July 11, further raising tensions. On the same day, protesters had attacked the Qatari Embassy in Damascus with stones and eggs, prompting the Qatari ambassador to Damascus, Zayed al-Khayarine, to quit Syria and the embassy to suspend its work.

Sources told AFP Wednesday Syria had apologized for that incident.

“Syria has sent a letter of apology to the Qatari Foreign Affairs Ministry,” a Qatari official said on condition of anonymity.

In other developments the Cypriot interior minister said Wednesday the government was revoking the passport of Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf because of EU sanctions imposed on him over the crackdown in Syria.

Neoclis Sylikiotis told journalists that as soon as he was informed by the Foreign Ministry that Makhlouf, a cousin of President Bashar Assad, was on the blacklist, he “gave immediate instructions to start proceedings to revoke” his Cypriot nationality.

Makhlouf was only granted citizenship on Jan. 4, after the Cabinet approved a request from the Foreign Ministry based on his having met the special criteria to obtain a passport.

Prior to that, he had received a permanent migration permit back in October 2009.

There was no sign that Makhlouf is currently on the island.

In ground developments Wednesday, Syrian troops swept through the central city of Homs, arresting “armed men” and confiscating “stockpiles of weapons,” reported pro-government Al-Watan newspaper.

“An uneasy calm has reigned in Homs since Tuesday afternoon after top quality operations by the army, which arrested a number of armed men and seized large quantities of weapons,” the pro-government Al-Watan said.

There were “bloody clashes” that left “soldiers and an officer wounded,” it said.

Al-Watan added that the “dialogue launched by civic leaders had resumed in a bid to contain dissent and re-establish unity,” in Homs, 160 kilometers north of the capital.

Activists say pro-regime gunmen have killed at least 20 people Homs since Monday, including seven mourners at a funeral. Fierce fighting rocked Homs at the weekend, with activists reporting more than 30 people killed in clashes among Christians, Sunni Muslims and Assad’s minority Alawite community.

Syria’s third-largest city, Homs has spearheaded demonstrations against the Syrian president since protests erupted on March 15.

The army had already entered the city in May in a bid to stop rallies calling for the fall of Assad’s government.

Meanwhile, security services arrested a number of key opposition figures including the Communist leader Georges Sabra and a lawyer, the Syrian League for the Defense of Human Rights said Wednesday.

“At 2:00 a.m., security forces stormed the home of Georges Sabra, head of the Syrian Democratic People’s Party, in Qatana,” Abdel Karim Rihawi said. “He was driven to an unknown location.”

Sabra had already been arrested on April 10 and detained for a month.

His party is associated with the 2005 Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change, an opposition movement calling for democratic reforms in Syria.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 21, 2011, on page 1.




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