Protesters plan to target equestrian star with links to Assad regime

Syria is sending its largest Olympic team since the Moscow Games in 1980

Syrian opposition activists are planning to target equestrian events during the Olympic Games to protest at the presence of an athlete who is distantly related to President Bashar al-Assad.

The inclusion of Ahmed Saber Hamcho, a show jumper with links to the Assad regime, threatens to turn the equestrian centre in Greenwich into a lightning rod for Syrian dissent.

Mr Hamcho, who spends much of his time in London as a student, is the son of Muhammad Hamcho, a prominent Syrian businessman listed in EU and US sanctions documents for his financial links with Damascus. He is also related by marriage to Maher al-Assad, Bashar's much-reviled younger brother.

Of the ten Syrian athletes attending the Games, only Mr Hamcho has made a public show of support for the increasingly embattled regime, turning him into something of a hate figure among opposition groups.

In a statement last month the 19-year-old said: "We must represent the Syrian people and we must also represent Dr Bashar al-Assad, who is still our president. We all agree on this point of view as a team."

A petition has since been launched on the website Change.org calling for him to be banned from competing.

"The Assad family should not be participating in the Olympics and representing the Syrian people," wrote one petitioner, Maura Yassin. "They have proven to be only concerned about saving their own power-hungry hides while ruthlessly riding on and breaking the fragile backs of their own people. Shame on them for even showing their sorry faces in public."

The Syrian government is determined to show that it can still send an Olympic team despite being plunged into a civil war. The country's Olympic chief, General Mowaffak Joumaa, is banned from entering the UK. Nonetheless Syria is sending its largest team since Moscow in 1980, with ten athletes and 14 officials.

Other athletes on the team include Thuraia Sobh, the country's first female Olympic weightlifter; high jumper Majed Aldin Ghazel; Omar Hasanin, a cyclist who is extremely popular in the Middle East; and Raya Zin Eddin, a sharpshooter in the women's 10m air rifle. The team has not yet arrived in the athletes' village.

In an interview earlier this year swimmer Bayan Juma, 18, said she tried to ignore the turmoil besetting her country. "I will not turn my attention on to the news, but on to my studies and training," she said. "Sometimes news like that can be a real distraction. I will try not to think of it."

While the Games team have remained tight-lipped about their political beliefs other sports figures have spoken out. Firas al-Khatib, who plays for the national football team, held a press conference in Kuwait and announced his defection, declaring: "I will not play with the Syrian national team so long as any cannon is opening fire on any area in Syria."

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