x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Syria tells US and French envoys not to leave capital without permission

Two weeks after they angered the Assad regime by visiting a city that has become the centre of the country¿s four-month uprising, Syria has ordered the French and US ambassadors they cannot travel outside Damascus without asking first.

BEIRUT // Syria has warned the US and French ambassadors not to travel outside the capital without permission, two weeks after they angered the regime by visiting a city that has become the centre of the country's four-month uprising.

If the US and French envoys disobey yesterday's order, Syria will ban all diplomats from leaving Damascus, the Foreign Minister Walid Al Moallem said in a lecture at Damascus University.

"We did not evict the two ambassadors because we want the relations to develop in the future and in order for their governments to review their stances toward Syria," Mr Al Moallem said.

"If these acts are repeated, we will impose a ban preventing [diplomats] from going more than 25km outside Damascus."

Syria has come under international criticism and sanctions for its clampdown, which activists say has killed about 1,600 people, most of them unarmed protesters.

The regime has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted coverage, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events.

On July 7 and 8, the US Ambassador Robert Ford and the French Ambassador Eric Chevallier travelled to Hama, about 200km north of the capital, in separate trips to express support for the Syrian people's right to demonstrate peacefully.

The US state department said Syrians had welcomed Mr Ford and lavished his car with flowers and olive branches. Hama residents said the visits had helped prevent attacks by security forces.

But the regime seized on the visit to insist that foreign conspirators are behind the unrest.

Relations between the US and Syria are chronically strained over President Bashar Al Assad's ties with Iran.

Within hours of the visit being made public, regime supporters attacked the US and French embassies in Damascus, smashing windows and painting graffiti. Three French embassy workers were injured.

Also yesterday, Syrian security forces swept through restive neighbourhoods, detaining dozens of people including a key opposition figure, activists said.

Security forces targeted suburbs of Damascus and the central city of Homs, which has seen some of the most intense and sustained violence in recent days. As many as 50 people have been killed there since Saturday, activists and witnesses said. The figure could not be verified.

George Sabra, who heads the outlawed National Democratic Party, was taken from his home in the suburb of Qatana, the Local Co-ordination Committees said. It was the second time Mr Sabra has been arrested since the uprising began.