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U.S. considers closing its embassy in Syria as protests persist

By the CNN Wire Staff
January 21, 2012 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: At least 14 people killed in Syria on Friday, opposition group says
  • Official: Syrian government is taking U.S. concerns seriously and is engaged
  • Heightened alarm over security comes in the wake of deadly car bombings
  • Closing the embassy would effectively cut remaining diplomatic relations

Damascus, Syria (CNN) -- The United States is considering closing its embassy in Damascus, Syria, because of security concerns, the State Department said Friday.

"While no decision has been made, we have serious concerns about the deteriorating security situation in Damascus, including the recent spate of car bombs, and about the safety and security of embassy personnel," it said in a written statement.

"We have requested that the government of Syria take additional security measures to protect our embassy, and the Syrian government is considering that request. We have also advised the Syrian government that unless concrete steps are taken in the coming days we may have no choice but to close the mission," the State Department said.

Shutting the embassy would effectively sever any remaining diplomatic relations between Syria and the United States.

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The U.S. Embassy in Damascus has only a handful of people working with Ambassador Robert Ford. Most of the staff were evacuated earlier in the year, and the diplomatic team was further reduced last week.

In October, the United States pulled Ford after he was attacked by what a U.S. official described as an "armed mob" in Damascus. About 100 pro-government protesters tried to storm a meeting, not in the embassy, between Ford and opposition leader Hassan Abdul Azim, trapping Ford and others for more than an hour. Later, his convoy was attacked.

Ford, who has been outspoken against the Syrian government's use of violence against protesters, is seen by Syrian government supporters as an activist more than a diplomat. He returned to Syria in December.

Heightened concerns about security come in the wake of last month's deadly car bombings at the offices of two Syrian security branches in Damascus.

Authorities in Syria have restricted traffic around government facilities and added barriers -- steps a senior State Department official said the United States and countries with similar concerns asked the government to implement.

"They have taken our concerns seriously and are engaged," the official said. "They have taken some steps, but at this point they are not sufficient to address what we see is a very real threat against the embassy buildings."

Amid the diplomatic wrangling, Syria smoldered Friday as anti-government demonstrators poured into the streets and the Arab League mulled an extension of its monitoring mission.

Protesters focused their attention on political prisoners and demanded the release of detainees. At least 14 people were killed, including six in Idlib, according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition activist group.

For more than 10 months, Syria has been in the throes of an anti-government public uprising and a brutal security crackdown against protesters. The United Nations last month estimated well over 5,000 deaths since mid-March. Opposition groups estimate more than 6,000 people have died.

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The Arab League has called on President Bashar al-Assad's regime to stop violence against civilians, free political detainees, remove tanks and weapons from cities and allow outsiders, including the international news media, to travel freely around Syria.

The purpose of its month-long fact-finding mission was to see if the government was adhering to an agreement to end the violence. The mission was scheduled to end Thursday but the League was negotiating an extension.

A handful of Arab League members will meet Saturday, led by Qatar, before the full body meets Sunday in Cairo to discuss the monitors' final findings.

Human Rights Watch urged the Arab League to publicly release its final report about the group's monitoring mission.

"The Arab League should make its monitors' report public to address increasing concerns that its monitoring mission is being manipulated by the Syrian authorities," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said on Friday. "Only a transparent assessment of the monitoring mission can determine whether the monitors should stay in the country."

Human Rights Watch has questioned the mission's "lack of transparency and independence."

"The criteria for selecting the monitors have not been made available nor has any information about their monitoring experience. The mission has relied on the Syrian government for security and to transport monitors around the country, compromising the mission's ability to access victims and witnesses safely. The mission's interim report on January 8 has not been made public, and the Arab League has not shared information about the mission's methodology," the group said.

Opposition activists and human rights monitors say the Syrian government has not stopped its aggressive actions against protesters since the mission began December 26.

Human Rights Watch said it has "documented daily violations by security forces against protesters and steps by the Syrian government to interfere with the work of the mission."

Citing local activists, it says 506 civilians have been killed by security forces since the Arab League monitors started the mission. It said "attacks against security forces have also intensified in certain parts of the country."

The al-Assad government says it is fighting "armed terrorist groups," which it blames for the violence.

The opposition Syrian National Council sent a delegation to meet with Arab League officials about the report.

"The report must document the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime against civilians in all cities and towns," the group said in a statement. "Ongoing human rights violations include direct orders by the regime to kill civilians using snipers, and executions by firing squad, in public squares. The SNC delegation will stress that the report must contain clear language indicating genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed by the regime against unarmed civilians."

Thousands of people have been detained since mid-March. Activist groups on Friday issued statements about one man, Hossam Ahmed Naboulsy -- detained in Baniyas several weeks ago.

A video purporting to show a badly beaten and dazed Naboulsy surfaced, and it has prompted stern reaction from activists. The man in the video has a bruised and swollen face

The LCC has urged his release. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, another activist group, says it is "extremely concerned" for his life.

Human Rights Watch is urging the U.N. Security Council "to impose targeted sanctions to halt the ongoing killings."

"The Arab League should publicly recognize that Syria has not respected the League's plan and work with the Security Council to increase pressure on the authorities and effectively curtail the use of firepower," Whitson said.

The SNC delegation also said it plans to demand that the issue be referred to the Security Council "for a resolution to establish a safe zone and impose a no-fly zone in Syria. The resolution must also call for the establishment of an oversight body empowered to use force to prevent the Syrian regime from continuing to kill and torture its civilian population."

While Western powers have imposed sanctions on Syria during the government crackdown, opposition by Russia and China has kept the U.N. Security Council from following suit.

Syria said U.S. and EU sanctions on its oil sector have led to a $2 billion loss, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said, citing the country's oil minister. The government blames oil and gas pipeline sabotage on the terrorist groups.

CNN's Elise Labott, Salma Abdelaziz and Joe Sterling contributed to this report

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