UK Politics

Hague: British Embassy in Damascus 'suspended'

William Hague
Image caption William Hague said talks with the main opposition group - the Syrian National Council - would continue

Foreign Secretary William Hague has withdrawn all diplomatic staff from the British Embassy in Damascus in Syria and suspended its services.

Mr Hague said the deteriorating security situation put staff in danger.

The move comes as the UN rights council condemned "systematic violations" against civilians by the Syrian regime.

Prime Minister David Cameron said the UK is taking steps to build a legal case against President Bashar al-Assad for violently suppressing protests.

He said Britain is making sure that experts are available on the Turkish border and elsewhere to collect the evidence.

"There will be film evidence, there will be testimony, there will be individuals, there may well be information from the cameraman who recently escaped from Homs," he said.

The British prime minister said the aim was to "build a picture that can then make a case that these are crimes against humanity" and that the Syrian president "must be held to account".

'Crisis appeal'

"I wish we could do more but we have to be realistic about what we can achieve. But holding them to account, gathering the evidence, using that case to build a case in international law that he can never hide from - that we can do," said Mr Cameron.

It comes after he said the international community was exerting maximum pressure on the regime.

Mr Cameron has said Britain must be realistic about its capacity to intervene directly, insisting the situation was different to Libya.

Meanwhile, the British Red Cross has launched a "crisis appeal", saying Syria urgently needs aid.

Mr Hague revealed the decision to withdraw UK diplomats in a written statement laid before Parliament.

He said the UK's ambassador, Simon Collis, and other diplomatic staff left Syria on 29 February and would shortly be returning to the UK.

He said: "British nationals who remain in Syria despite our longstanding and consistent message to leave the country should contact the embassy of any remaining European Union member state if they require consular assistance."

In the statement, Mr Hague said staff and premises were now judged to be at risk but that it "in no way reduces the UK's commitment to active diplomacy to maintain pressure on the Assad regime to end the violence".

It is not known how many staff left the embassy on Wednesday.

'Build a case'

Mr Hague said the UK supported the UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan and that the country would continue to work with main opposition group the Syrian National Council.

The UK will continue to retain a dialogue with the Syrian embassy in London.

The US closed its embassy in Syria and several European countries, including the UK, recalled their ambassadors last month.

Mr Cameron told Channel Five news: "We've been pushing for resolutions at the United Nations, we've been working with the Syrian opposition to try and encourage them be more inclusive.

"I think we have to keep up that pressure. But we do have to recognise... there are big differences between the situation in Libya and the situation in Syria.

Image caption The British embassy staff left their Damascus base on Wednesday

"I wish we could do more but we have to be realistic about what we can achieve about holding them to account. Gathering the evidence, using that evidence to build a case in international law that he can never hide from - that we can do."

On Thursday, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva condemned the Syrian government for violating the human rights of the country's people.

Its resolution, which was supported by 37 nations, called for the regime to allow access for aid agencies, and demanded an immediate halt to the violence. China, Russia and Cuba voted against the resolution.

The British Red Cross has said that Syrian people urgently need food, medicine and other aid.

In a statement, the charity said it had already given more than £500,000 to support humanitarian work in the country since May last year but more needed to be done.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have also been carrying out aid missions in the country.

Marianne Gasser, head of the ICRC's delegation in Syria, said: "The population, particularly the wounded and sick, are bearing the brunt of the violence."

The action comes as Syrian forces, a day after launching a ground assault on the Baba Amr district.

Activists say more than 7,500 people have died since the uprising against Mr Assad's government began last March.

The government, however, says at least 1,345 members of the security forces have been killed combating "armed gangs and terrorists", and puts the number of civilians killed at 2,493.

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