Egypt recalls ambassador from Syria as violence rages

Egyptians and Syrian expatriates protest against President Bashar al-Assad outside the Syrian embassy in Cairo, 17 February Egyptians and Syrian expatriates have been protesting outside the Syrian embassy in Cairo

Cairo has recalled its ambassador to Syria as President Bashar al-Assad's forces continue their campaign against opponents of his rule.

No reason for the envoy's recall was given but it came days after the Egyptian foreign minister called for an immediate end to violence.

Other states, both Arab and European, recalled their envoys earlier and also expelled Syrian ambassadors.

A prosecutor and a judge are among the latest victims of the violence.

The government and opposition blamed each other for the deaths of the two men, who were reportedly killed along with their driver as they drove to work in a car in the city of Idlib.

Meanwhile, one of Syria's leading businessmen has told the BBC he believes the country's economy is being crippled by foreign sanctions and the government is slowly disintegrating.

Faisal al-Qudsi, who chairs a London-based investment banking firm, said the security forces were tired but President Assad meant to fight to the end.

Analysis

Egypt is the latest in a series of Arab countries to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus, in protest at the Syrian government's action against protesters.

The move is part of a growing international isolation of President Assad's government, and deeply symbolic. During the heyday of Arab nationalism, half a century ago, the two countries were briefly unified under the rule of Gamal Abdul Nasser.

The move also reflects popular pressure on the Egyptian government to take a tougher line. There had been a series of demonstrations in Cairo outside the Syrian embassy.

At one point demonstrators even briefly gained access to the building. The protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest party in parliament, have called on Syria's ambassador to Egypt to be expelled as well, but so far that has not happened.

And speaking to the BBC on Sunday, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague again called on Mr Assad to resign, saying he feared a slide into civil war.

'Until further notice'

Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr summoned the ambassador to Damascus after it was decided he should remain in Cairo "until further notice", the Egyptian foreign ministry announced.

There was no mention of Syria's ambassador to Cairo being asked to leave.

On Wednesday, Mr Amr said Egypt wanted to see "a real and peaceful change in Syria", starting with an immediate end to violence and with the "government responding to the aspirations of the Syrian people".

This, he said, was necessary to "prevent an overall explosion in the situation, which would have consequences for the stability of the region".

Violence in Syria continued over the weekend, with troops firing on mourners at a funeral in Damascus on Saturday, after it turned into a mass demonstration.

The 11-month uprising against Mr Assad has claimed thousands of lives.

Human rights groups believe more than 7,000 people have been killed while the government says at least 2,000 members of the security forces have died fighting militants.

Activists say government forces are strengthening their siege of the city of Homs, where hundreds of opposition fighters are believed to be holding out.

The BBC's Jim Muir says human rights groups fear a massacre if a full-scale ground assault is launched against the city.

'Stranglehold'

Speaking to the BBC, Foreign Secretary Hague the international community's ability to prevent a civil war in Syria had been constrained by Russia and China vetoing the recent UN Security Council draft resolution.

He added that he would meet counterparts in Tunisia on Friday to discuss tightening "the economic and diplomatic stranglehold on the Assad regime".

Mr Assad is pressing on with his plan for a referendum on a new constitution, followed by elections.

However, the opposition has called for a boycott of the 26 February referendum, saying it cannot be held while violence continues.

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