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U.S. ambassador leaves Syria after 'credible threats' to safety

October 24, 2011 | 10:24 am

U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford
REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has temporarily removed its ambassador to Syria, who has drawn worldwide attention to the regime’s harsh domestic crackdown, citing "credible threats against his personal safety."

Ambassador Robert S. Ford departed over the weekend, U.S. officials said Monday, adding that he would not return to Damascus until the security situation improves.

Ford, a veteran U.S. diplomat in the Middle East, has traveled through Syria this year to meet with opposition figures who are demonstrating against the government of President Bashar Assad. His travels have encouraged domestic opponents, but they have also stirred a violent reaction that the administration believes is encouraged by the regime.

Earlier this month, an angry group of Syrians trapped Ford for several hours in a building where he was meeting with a Syrian opposition figure. The demonstrators attacked a group of embassy vehicles with crowbars and bricks.

Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, accused Assad's regime of conducting an “incitement campaign” against Ford.

U.S. officials speculated that the Syrians may hope that Ford’s departure will help reduce the turnout at anti-government demonstrations.

Toner said the timing of Ford’s return "will depend on our assessment of Syrian regime-led incitement and the security situation on the ground."

He said Ford’s presence "is a benefit to our mission in Syria, as he has worked diligently to deliver our message and be our eyes on the ground. This decision was based solely on the need to ensure his safety, a matter we take extremely seriously."

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-- Paul Richter

Photo:  U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford covers his nose during a visit with other foreign diplomats to a mass grave in northern Syria on June 20. Credit: Bassem Tellawi / Associated Press

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