WASHINGTON The United States on Monday called on Syria to stop its "smear campaign" against the U.S. ambassador, whose recall to Washington was matched by Syria's decision to bring home its envoy amid a spat over anti-government protests in Syria.
Ambassador Robert Ford had angered the Syrian government by cultivating contacts within the 7-month-old grass-roots movement against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leading to attacks on his embassy and residence, diplomats said.
Western diplomats told Reuters Ford left Syria over the weekend following a series of incidents that caused physical damage to U.S. property but no casualties.
The Syrian government must "immediately end its smear campaign of malicious and deceitful propaganda against Ambassador Ford," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a news briefing in Washington.
"The concern here is that the kinds of falsehoods that are being spread about Ambassador Ford could lead to violence against him, whether it's by citizens, whether it's by ... thugs of one kind or another," she said.
Amid the escalating spat, Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to the United States, was called home on Monday, said Roua Sharbaji, a spokeswoman for the Syrian Embassy said.
Nuland said Ford was brought home to "give him a little bit of a break" from a tense situation, as well as for consultations.
"He has not been recalled and he has not been withdrawn," said Nuland, adding he would return to Damascus after consultations are completed.
"It will be incumbent on the government of Syria to provide for his security when he returns and to meet its Vienna Convention obligations, just as we do in protecting Ambassador Moustapha here," she said.
During seven months of protests against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Ford has courted the opposition and denounced Assad on Facebook. As the government instituted a deadly crackdown on protests, Ford defied a travel ban on Western diplomats by going to hotspots and meeting with anti-government demonstrators.
Last month pro-government demonstrators threw rocks, concrete blocks and tomatoes at Ford and his aides, as well as attacking their cars with metal bars, during their visit with an opposition figure in Damascus.
(Editing by Sandra Maler and Bill Trott)