x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Pro-Assad crowds try to storm US and French embassies in Damascus

Two protesters are killed by troops in Homs, as a government-organised national dialogue conference continued despite an opposition boycott, and Syrian government supporters attempt to invade embassies in Damascus.

DAMASCUS // At least two people were killed yesterday when army units raided Homs, Syria's third largest city, according to activists.

The latest deaths came as a government-organised national dialogue conference continued despite an opposition boycott over on-going violence.

With the conference entering its second day, pro-government crowds attempted to storm the US and French embassies in Damascus.

A western diplomat based in the Syrian capital described the incidents as "violent", with both compounds and the US ambassador's residence suffering damage, although no one was hurt.

Guards at the French embassy fired warning shots to disperse a "mob", diplomats said, with the French officials saying the incident "blatantly violated" international laws.

"France reminds Syria that it is not with such illegal methods that the authorities in Damascus will turn the attention away from the fundamental problem, which is to stop the repression of the Syrian population and to launch democratic reform," French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.

It is the second time US and French diplomatic missions in Damascus have been targeted by pro-government demonstrators since Friday, when their ambassadors visited Hama, a focal point for protesters, and publicly voiced support for anti-regime demonstrators there.

Those visits drew condemnation from the Syrian authorities, which accused the US ambassador, Robert Ford, in particular of meeting "saboteurs", inciting violence and trying to undermine its reform agenda.

The US State Department yesterday accused Syria of being "slow to respond" with extra security measures when its Damascus embassy was under siege.

"One of the basic obligations of a government under the Vienna Convention is protection of diplomatic facilities," a State Department spokesman said. "On this, as in other areas such as protection of human rights, the Syrian government failed. We strongly condemn the Syrian government's refusal to protect our embassy.

"We demand compensation for damages and we call on the Syrian government to fulfil its obligations to its own citizens as well."

Hours before the embassy confrontations, activists said troops and armoured vehicles moved into Homs, gunfire shattering the early morning silence.

One human rights activist in Damascus, said: "The army and security forces have been carrying out operations in Homs since Sunday night, with dawn raids Monday morning. At least two people have been killed and many more have been wounded."

Officials continued to insist their "comprehensive national dialogue" remained viable, despite dissidents refusing to take part even in consultation talks while a deadly security crackdown is on-going and thousands of protesters remain in jail.

State media quoted Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to President Bashar Al Assad, as saying it was "unfortunate some opposition figures" did not attend the two-day conference but that the gathering had nonetheless represented "all of society's spectrums".

Dissident intellectuals, opposition politicians and protesters have all dismissed the conference as hollow, saying the regime wants to convince the outside world it is serious about reform, while trying to crush a popular uprising through force of arms and mass arrests.

Although the dialogue has been boycotted by the opposition, some independent figures taking part have been critical of the authorities.

Mohammad Habash, a respected former MP and Islamic scholar, told those at the meeting that "confronting protests with bullets is not acceptable". He demanded an end to one-party rule and for unaccountable security services to be brought under civil control.

Such comments brought rebukes from regime loyalists among the delegates, who stressed their support for military operations. The Syrian authorities insist they are facing a mutiny by Islamic militants, a claim rejected by dissidents, human rights groups and international organisations, including the United Nations, which say it is an overwhelmingly peaceful pro-democracy uprising.

Yesterday's conference was intended as a precursor to more lengthy talks, expected to take place later this month.

Officials defended the sedentary pace towards yet more discussion - the national dialogue was first announced by Mr Assad three weeks ago - saying consideration of constitutional reforms and new laws "needs time".

Dissidents have said they will stay away from any future talks unless the army is pulled out of cities and protesters allowed to demonstrate without coming under attack from security forces.

Mahmoud Mara'ai, a leading human-rights lawyer in Damascus, said: "There is no environment for talks." Mr Mara'ai said national dialogue had so far been "the regime talking to itself".

"Unless the security crackdown ends and all political prisoners are released, the opposition will not talk with the authorities, not today and not in the future," he said.