AMMAN The United States said on Monday it had pulled its ambassador out of Syria because of threats to his safety, prompting Syria to follow suit in a deterioration of ties already battered over President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown against protesters.
U.S. envoy Robert Ford had antagonized Syria's government with his high-profile support for the demonstrators trying to end 41 years of Assad family rule. Assad supporters attacked the U.S. embassy and Ford's convoy in recent months.
Ford left Syria as a government crackdown on protests and a nascent armed insurgency intensified and as more businesses and shops closed in southern Syria in the most sustained strike of the seven-month uprising.
In the central city of Homs, 140 km (85 miles) north of Damascus, eight people were killed when troops and militiamen fired at majority Sunni Muslim districts that have been a bastion for protests and, lately, a refuge for military defectors leading armed resistance, residents said. Syria is dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect.
The killings brought to at least 16 the number of civilians killed in tank-backed assaults on districts in Homs in the last two days, activists said.
The United States has called for Assad to step down and, along with European allies, has intensified sanctions on Syria, including against its small but significant oil sector, a central source of foreign currency for the government.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement saying Ford "was brought back to Washington as a result of credible threats against his personal safety in Syria."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Ford was expected to return to Syria and demanded the Syrian government provide for his protection and end what she called a "smear campaign of malicious and deceitful propaganda" against him.
Nuland said Ford had not been "withdrawn" -- a diplomatically loaded term that could have implied that the envoy would not return and that suggests a diminution in relations between the two countries.
SYRIAN AMBASSADOR RECALLED
At the end of September, Assad loyalists threw concrete blocks at Ford's convoy and hit the cars with iron bars as he was visiting centrist politician Hassan Abdulazim, according to an account published by the ambassador the next day.
In July several Assad loyalists broke into the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, tore down signs and tried to break security glass. They also attempted to break into Ford's nearby residence but failed to gain entry.
After news of Ford's pullout broke, a spokeswoman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, Roua Sharbaji, said Ambassador Imad Moustapha had been recalled to Damascus for consultations.
Unlike over Libya, there appears to be no appetite among Western or Arab governments for armed intervention to stop the violence in Syria, one of a number of Arab countries where there have been uprisings this year against authoritarian rulers.
The official Syrian news agency said of the Homs violence that "terrorist groups" fired at a taxi carrying university students on Sunday night, killing a young woman.
Security forces arrested several people and seized automatic weapons and automatic rifles and Molotov cocktails, it said.
A YouTube video shot by activists purportedly showed a young protester dying from a gunshot that hit him while he was dragging a body off a street in al-Khalidiya district. Their comrades are heard shouting "God is greater."
Reuters could not confirm the authenticity of the footage. Most foreign media have been banned from Syria, making it difficult to verify events on the ground.
Syrian authorities say they are fighting "armed terrorist groups" in Homs who have killed civilians, security forces and prominent figures.
They blame the unrest across the country on such groups, which they say have killed 1,100 troops and police. The United Nations says the crackdown has killed 3,000 people, including 187 children.
CALLS FOR PROTECTION
Syrian protesters have been increasingly calling for international protection to stop civilian killings, but U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman said intervention similar to the NATO strikes on Libya was unlikely.
"What we need to do is to talk to our partners and friends about finding ways that are appropriate to Syria, to help protect the Syrian civilians against the violence that is inflicted upon them," Feltman said after talks with Moroccan Foreign Affairs Minister Taieb Fassi Firi in Rabat.
Jordan's King Abdullah, whose government has been quietly receiving hundreds of Syrian refugees fleeing the crackdown, told CNN: "I don't think there is anybody in the region or outside who knows how to tackle with the Syria issue."
The mounting security clampdown has triggered a strike by private businesses in towns across the Hauran Plain, which was the first region where masses publicly turned against Assad.
Anger has grown over the killing of several protesters last week in the towns of Dael and in Ibtaa. The region has seen nightly protests in solidarity with Homs.
"Troops have entered into several towns to end the strike but protesters want to expand it into wider civil disobedience," said one activist, who added that army reinforcements had been sent to several towns in the Deraa countryside.
In Deraa, capital of the agricultural province, businesses across the city were closed for the fourth day. In the town of al-Hirak to the east, the strike had picked up steam in the last two days, activists said.
Residents reported fighting between army defectors and loyalist troops in the old quarter of Deraa, with the sound of mortar explosions being heard and people shouting "Allah wa akbar" (God is greater) from rooftops in support of insurgents.
With troops concentrating on urban centers, protests have expanded in rural regions, including some areas which were once bedrocks of Sunni support for Assad and are now seeing defections from the military and armed resistance.
The 46-year-old president is from the Alawite community, which dominates the state, the army and security apparatus. He has been backing the Lebanese Shi'ite guerrilla group Hezbollah to the disquiet of Syria's majority Sunni Muslim population.
In a gesture of support for Assad, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech on Monday that Syria was mostly out of the "danger zone."