Clinton calls Assad to account after mob attacks embassies

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The Independent Online

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has "lost legitimacy" as a leader interested in reform, as the US and French embassies in Damascus came under attack from hundreds of Syrian pro-government protesters.

Ms Clinton's comments mark the strongest public criticism yet by a senior US official of President Assad, but fell short of demanding that he leave power.

"From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy," Ms Clinton said. "He has failed to deliver on promises he has made, he has sought and accepted aid from the Iranians as to how to repress his own people." She said there was a "laundry list of actions" for which the Assad government should be held accountable, and condemned the attacks on the embassies.

In the attacks, hundreds of Syrian pro-government protesters tried to force their way past perimeter security and were met with live fire and tear gas.

The demonstrators, who were venting their anger at recent visits by the French and American ambassadors to the anti-government stronghold of Hama, clambered up the fence surrounding the US embassy, smashed windows and burnt flags outside the compound. Some sprayed graffiti on the walls calling the American ambassador, Robert Ford, "a dog".

A witness who spoke by phone to The Independent said many of the protesters had been outside the embassy since Sunday afternoon demanding that Mr Ford be removed.

"They were climbing up the walls and throwing stones inside the embassy. At one point they changed an American flag for a Syrian one. They want to kick out the ambassador," said the witness, a member of an anti-government group.

After being dispersed, a number of the protesters attacked Mr Ford's residence. A US official said the property was damaged, but gave no further details. At the French embassy, armed guards fired live rounds in a bid to scatter demonstrators.

Mr Ford and the French ambassador, Eric Chevallier, angered theSyrian regime when they visited Hama last week. According to French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero, most of yesterday's protesters were "definitely not the grocer from around the corner". He suggested that the rallies had been organised.

The heavily fortified US embassy, on the slopes of Mount Qassioun overlooking the capital, is near the home President Assad.

The US has formally protested about the attack on the US Embassy and the American ambassador's residence in Damascus, and accused Syria of being slow to respond to the attack. Paris said the incident "blatantly violated" international laws.

Joshua Landis, an expert on the Baathist regime and editor of the Syria Comment news website, said the US and Syria were now locked in a "tit-for-tat situation". He said: "The ambassadors clearly made a big statement with the trip to Hama which angered the Syrians. The Syrians are making a big statement back."

The violence comes as Washington faces another problem over Syria, with Republicans pressing Barack Obama to sever diplomatic ties because of the regime's alleged links to Iran and Hezbollah. But Mr Landis said the White House was unlikely to waver from its preference for dialogue.

Yesterday's violence came a day after demonstrators pelted the American embassy with rocks and eggs, while crowds surrounded the French consulate in Aleppo.

Both America and the European Union have issued sanctions against the Baathist regime since mass demonstrations against President Assad began in March.