AMMAN (Reuters) - 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 worsening of ties already tattered by U.S. opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s efforts to crush anti-government protests.
The 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 latest violence, two people were killed in the central city of Homs, 85 miles north of Damascus, when troops and loyalist militiamen fired at majority Sunni Muslim districts that have been a bastion for protests.
The United States has called for Assad to step down and, along with its 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 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.
“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.
Nuland stressed that Ford had not been “withdrawn” -- a diplomatically loaded term that could have implied that the envoy would not return and that suggests a diminution in relations between the two countries.
“INCITEMENT” AGAINST ENVOY
U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Ford left Damascus on Saturday.
A spokeswoman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, Roua Sharbaji, said after news of Ford’s return became public Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha had been recalled to Damascus for consultations on Monday.
Unlike in Libya, there appears to be no appetite among Western or Arab governments to consider armed intervention to stop the violence in Syria, one of a host of Arab states to see uprisings against long-time authoritarian rulers this year.
The killings in Homs on Monday bring to at least 10 the number of civilians killed in tank-backed assaults on districts in the central city in the last two days, activists said.
The official Syrian news agency said “terrorist groups” had fired at a taxi carrying university students in Homs on Sunday night, killing a young woman. Security forces arrested several members of other groups and seized automatic weapons, automatic rifles and Molotov cocktails.
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” as the two bodies lay next to each other on the asphalt.
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 army and police. The United Nations says the crackdown has killed 3,000 people, including 187 children.
Ford left Syria following a series of violent incidents that damaged the U.S. Embassy compound and his motorcade but did not cause any casualties.
At the end of September, Assad loyalists threw concrete blocks at his convoy and hit the cars with iron bars as Ford 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 tried to break into Ford’s nearby residence but failed to gain entry.
The Syrian government’s mounting security crackdown 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 killings 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 said army reinforcements had been sent to several towns in the Deraa countryside.
In Deraa city, 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 picked up steam in the last two days, activists said.
“This strike is intensifying every day as more businesses shut and people become more defiant than ever, angered by the increasing brutality and daily roundups and arrests,” said one Deraa resident who gave his name as Abu Abdullah.
With troops concentrating on urban centers, protests have expanded in rural regions, including some once bedrocks of Sunni support for Assad but now seeing defections from the military and armed resistance.
In an interview with Reuters last month, Ford said Assad was losing support among key constituents and risked plunging Syria into sectarian strife between Sunnis and Alawites by intensifying the military crackdown.
Ford also infuriated Syria’s rulers with his high profile gestures of support for the seven-month-old grassroots protest movement seeking to oust Assad.
He was cheered when he went in July to the anti-Assad hotbed city of Hama, which was later stormed by tanks, ignoring a ban on diplomats traveling outside the Damascus area.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Editing by Dominic Evans, Cynthia Osterman and Todd Eastham