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Syrian protesters attack U.S., French embassies
BEIRUT -- Hundreds of Syrian government supporters attacked the U.S. Embassy in Damascus Monday, smashing windows and spray-painting walls with obscenities and graffiti that called the American ambassador a "dog." Guards at the French Embassy fired in the air to ward off another group of protesters.
The escalation in tensions followed a visit last week by the American and French ambassadors to the city of Hama, a stronghold of opposition to authoritarian President Bashar Assad. Syrian authorities were angered by the visit and American ambassador Robert Ford's harsh criticism afterward of the government crackdown on a four-month-old uprising. Ford's residence was also attacked on Monday.
The U.S. and France both accused Syrian forces of being too slow to respond and demanded the government abide by its international obligations to protect diplomatic missions and allow envoys freedom of movement. The U.S. formally protested, calling the attacks "outrageous," and saying protesters were incited by a television station heavily influenced by Syrian authorities.
"Ford get out now," protesters wrote on a paper hung on the U.S. Embassy's fence. "The people want to kick out the dog," read graffiti scrawled in red on the wall of the embassy, along with another line cursing America. The protesters smashed the embassy sign hanging over one gate.
The U.S. said it would seek compensation for damage.
Syrian-U.S. relations have been mired in mutual distrust for years. But Monday's attacks were the worst such violence since 2000, when a stone-throwing mob attacked and vandalized the U.S. Embassy and ambassador's residence over American and British airstrikes against Iraq.
The U.S. said about 300 "thugs" breached the wall of the embassy compound before being dispersed by American Marine guards. No injuries were reported.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the mob got onto the roof of the chancery building, spray-painted graffiti and broke windows and security cameras. They lobbed fruits and vegetables at the compound.
A witness saud that protesters scaled a fence, smashed windows and raised a Syrian flag at the embassy.
Nuland said that Syrian security forces, who are supposed to guard the mission, were slow to respond.
After the crowd at the embassy was dispersed, the protesters moved to the ambassador's residence and attacked it, causing unspecified damage, Nuland said. The ambassador's residence is not inside the embassy compound but is nearby.
"We consider that the Syrian government has not lived up to its obligations ... to protect diplomatic facilities and it is absolutely outrageous," she told reporters.
There were similar scenes at the French embassy, where guards fired in the air to hold back Assad loyalists who attacked the compound.
The French Foreign Ministry said three embassy workers were injured as "well organized groups" smashed windows and destroyed the ambassador's car.
"Faced with the passivity of security forces, embassy security agents were forced to make three warning shots to stop intrusions from multiplying," a French government statement said.
The French flag was removed and replaced with a Syrian one.
"God, Syria and Bashar. The nation that gave birth to Bashar Assad will not kneel," read graffiti scrawled outside the embassy.
The attacks pose a renewed challenge to the Obama administration. The White House has criticized the Syrian regime's violent crackdown on peaceful protests but has refrained from calling for an end to the Assad family's four decades of rule, seemingly wary of pressing too hard as it tries to wind down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and faces criticism for being part of the coalition battling Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.