AMMAN Several loyalists of President Bashar al-Assad broke into the U.S. embassy in Damascus on Monday and security guards used live ammunition to prevent hundreds from storming the French embassy, diplomats said.
They said the attackers tore down U.S. embassy plaques and tried to break security glass in protests fueled by the government against a visit by U.S. and French ambassadors to the city of Hama, focus of demonstrations against Assad's rule.
"Four buses full of shabbiha (Alawite militia loyal to Assad) came from Tartous. They used a battering ram to try to break into the main door," a resident of Afif, the old district where the U.S. embassy is located told Reuters by telephone.
A Western diplomat in the Syrian capital said: "This is a violent escalation by the regime. You do not bring bus loads of thugs into central Damascus from the coast without its consent."
A French foreign ministry official said the Syrian authorities had done nothing to stop the assault on its embassy.
"(France) reminds (Syria) that it is not with such illegal methods that the authorities in Damascus will turn the attention away from the fundamental problem, which is to stop the repression of the Syrian population and to launch democratic reform," said foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.
France has led Western attempts to pass a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Syria's hierarchy for cracking down on protesters. It says the president has lost legitimacy because of the number of killings to try to quell the protests demanding political freedoms after 41 years of Assad family rule.
The United States condemned Syria for "refusing" to protect the embassy from an assault it said had been encouraged by a pro-government television station.
"A television station that is heavily influenced by Syrian authorities encouraged this violent demonstration," a State Department spokesperson said in a statement.
"We strongly condemn the Syrian government's refusal to protect our embassy, and demand compensation for damages. We call on the Syrian government to fulfill its obligations to its own citizens as well," the statement said.
No casualties were reported in the attacks.
Human rights groups say at least 1,400 civilians have been killed since an uprising began in March against Assad's autocratic rule, posing the biggest threat to his leadership since he succeeded his father 11 years ago.
Assad loyalists also attempted to attack the U.S. ambassador's residence in Damascus on Monday after assaulting the embassy compound but failed to gain entry.
"It was the same thing, a mob. But everybody is alright," a U.S. official said, adding that U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford was at the embassy compound when the assaults occurred and not the residence, located several blocks away.
In other violence on Monday, Syrian forces killed one civilian and wounded 20 in heavy-machinegun fire on Homs, Syria's third city, and went house-to-house arresting suspected opponents in Hama, human rights activists said.
Mostafa Abdelrahman, a preacher at a mosque in Hama, met Assad on Sunday to demand the release of 1,000 political prisoners and offer to remove makeshift roadblocks if given guarantees that there would be no more assaults, activists said.
Despite using military assaults in towns and cities to try to crush the protests, Assad has called for talks on reforms. But the opposition refused to attend a two-day conference this week in the capital, saying it was futile as long as violence continued. Mostly Assad supporters were taking part.
"Dialogue can only work when both parties respect each other and look at each other as equals," said Ayman Abdel-nour, the Gulf-based editor of all4syria.com website.
Vice President Farouq al-Shara, whose role is ceremonial, told the conference's opening ceremony on Sunday the authorities would turn over a new page, hinting that political parties other than the Baath party would be allowed to operate.
The meeting was expected to discuss legislation which would allow a multi-party system and constitutional amendments.
But political analysts said reform was unlikely to be implemented as long as the security apparatus and Assad loyalists operated with impunity against demonstrators.
Hilal Khashan, a Lebanon-based political commentator, said Assad's call for dialogue was aimed at buying time.
"If the regime was serious about reforms, they would change their security measures. Nobody in their sound mind would expect anything from Damascus as genuine political reform."
(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Beirut and by Paris and Washington bureau; editing by Elizabeth Piper)