Italy recalls ambassador to Syria

AP News
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Posted: Aug 02, 2011 8:21 PM
Italy recalls ambassador to Syria

Italy has recalled its ambassador to Syria to protest the repression of anti-government demonstrations, urging other European nations do the same, and Russia said it would not oppose a U.N. resolution to condemn the violence.

Italy is the first European Union country to withdraw its ambassador, although the EU has been tightening sanctions, imposing asset freezes and travel bans against five additional Syrian military and government officials on Monday.

At U.N. headquarters in New York, the Security Council began negotiating a text Tuesday after failing for more than three months to make any statement on the Syrian violence _ except to condemn the attacks on the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus.

During talks that dragged into the evening Tuesday, the council was negotiating on the wording of a European-drafted resolution that was updated with proposals from Brazil and others in what several ambassadors called a positive step.

India's U.N. Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, the current council president, had said the goal was to reach tentative agreement on a text that could be sent to capitals overnight and then tackle the divisive issue of whether it should be adopted as a legally binding resolution or a weaker presidential statement.

After lengthy discussions, the ambassadors broke for the evening and agreed to resume negotiations on Wednesday morning after getting guidance from their capitals.

"Unfortunately no final agreement was possible today," said Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. He said he hoped the overnight break would allow members "to see whether common ground is possible."

Lesser-ranking diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were private, said one key unresolved issue was how to address the violence against unarmed civilians and attacks on Syrian security forces. The Europeans and the U.S. insist that the Syrian government's violence against unarmed civilians, which account for the vast number of casualties, cannot be equated with the attacks on security forces, the diplomats said.

Russia's government softened its stance, indicating it would not oppose a resolution. Last month, Russia and China had threatened to veto the original European resolution that would have condemned the Syrian attacks, effectively blocking it. The Europeans and U.S. want a resolution but diplomats said other council members including India, Brazil and South Africa want a presidential statement.

"If there are some unbalanced things like sanctions or pressure, I think that set of measures is bad for everything we seek. And that is less bloodshed and more democracy," Sergei Vershinin, chief of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Middle East and North Africa Department, told Russian news agencies Tuesday.

He said Russia is "not categorically against" adopting a new U.N. resolution on Syria, but that it should not impose sanctions because that would only escalate the conflict.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota told reporters in Brasilia his country was working with India and South Africa on a proposed resolution that he hoped would gain consensus.

The resolution would insist "that the Syrian government put an end to the violence in the shortest time possible," said Patriota. He added that he hoped that Brazil, India and South Africa would reach a separate agreement to send a delegation of their vice ministers to Damascus to talk with Syrian authorities about ways to end the violence.

The European-drafted resolution has faced opposition from Russia, China, India, South Africa and Brazil, partly because they fear that it may be used as a pretext for armed intervention against Syria. They have argued that a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians in Libya has been misused by NATO to justify 5 months of air strikes against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

Italy's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it has decided to recall its envoy "in the face of the horrible repression against the civil population" by the Syrian government, which launched a deadly new push against protesters as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began.

The ambassador was coming back Tuesday night, the Foreign Ministry said.

In July, the Qatari embassy in Damascus suspended its operations and the ambassador left the country. But the impetus for that move were protests outside the embassy against Al-Jazeera's coverage of the Syrian uprising. Al-Jazeera is based in Qatar.

Syria accuses Al-Jazeera and other media of incitement and fabricating events in their coverage of the protests.

Rome's appeal to fellow EU nations was not immediately heeded. Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, Poland, Spain and Sweden had no such plans for now.

France also signaled no move was imminent, suggesting Rome had not sent its proposals through official diplomatic channels, and there was no EU-wide initiative to recall envoys from Damascus, officials in Brussels said.

The British Foreign Office said it shares Italy's "strong concerns about the situation in Syria" but is not recalling its ambassador in Damascus.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said tougher EU sanctions were sending a "clear and unambiguous" message.

"In the absence of an end to the senseless violence and a genuine process of political reform, we will continue to pursue further EU sanctions," he said in a statement. Without change, he added, "President Assad and those around him will find themselves isolated internationally and discredited within Syria."

Poland, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, called instead for joint international action, with the U.N. Security Council playing a key role. The Polish foreign ministry added the EU delegation in Syria will also remain in Damascus.

The Czech Republic said ambassadors are the only foreigners in a country where virtually all foreign media are banned. "We need to maintain an independent source of information there," Foreign Ministry spokesman Vit Kolar said.

In Rome, a Foreign Ministry undersecretary, Stefania Craxi, said Italy wanted to send "a strong signal of condemnation" for the crackdown.

Craxi said Assad appeared "incapable" of handling the situation and implementing the serious reforms that both his citizens and the international community demand, the ANSA news agency reported. Craxi was briefing lawmakers on the situation in Syria.

Rome will also suspend cooperative programs with Damascus, save for aid destined to Iraqi refugees and other humanitarian assistance, Craxi said. The programs have been worth a total of euro50 million for the past three years, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Syrian troops killed nearly 100 people in two days, firing at worshippers heading to Ramadan prayers in the city of Hama, an opposition stronghold. On Tuesday, the troops tightened their siege on the city, sending residents fleeing for their lives.

The repression has caused an international outcry.

President Barack Obama called the latest attacks "outrageous," and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with U.S.-based Syrian democracy activists in Washington on Tuesday as the Obama administration weighed new sanctions against Syria.

Clinton "expressed her admiration for the courage of the brave Syrian people who continue to defy the government's brutality in order to express their universal rights," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

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Associated Press writers across Europe and Edith M. Lederer and Anita Snow at the U.N. contributed to this report.