Middle East

Syria declares Western ambassadors unwelcome

US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford (file)
Image caption The US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, was withdrawn over fears for his safety in October

Syria has declared as unwelcome the ambassadors of several Western states, a week after governments around the world expelled its top diplomats.

The US, UK, French and Turkish envoys were among those designated "personae non gratae". Many have already left.

President Bashar al-Assad has blamed outside powers for Syria's divisions.

Meanwhile, the UN has said the Syrian government has agreed to allow aid agencies to enter the four provinces that have seen the most violence.

"This agreement was secured in Damascus with the government there, in writing," John Ging, the director of operations for UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told reporters in Geneva after a meeting of the Syrian Humanitarian Forum.

"Freedom of movement, unimpeded access for humanitarian action within Syria, is what it's all about now. The good faith of the [Syrian] government will be tested on this issue today, tomorrow and every day," he added.

Procedures would be streamlined for granting visas to staff from nine UN agencies and seven international NGOs, Mr Ging said. The UN will open field offices in the provinces of Deraa, Deir al-Zour, Homs and Idlib.

The UN has been trying for months to get its aid workers into Syria, but with little success, reports the BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Geneva. Visa applications have been delayed or denied, and supplies of aid blocked.

The UN estimates that one million people are in need of assistance inside Syria, and that the number will likely increase after further assessments.

In a separate development, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, urged the international community to continue to support the peace plan negotiated by the UN and Arab League envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, Chinese state TV said.

But Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said Gulf Arab states had "begun to lose hope in the possibility of reaching a solution... within this framework".

Mr Annan is to address the UN Security Council in New York on Thursday. He is believed to want a "serious review" of efforts to implement his plan.

'Importance of dialogue'

Last week, at least 13 countries expelled top Syrian diplomats in protest at the massacre of more than 100 people, including 49 children, in the Houla area of Homs province. Turkey expelled all Syrian embassy staff.

In what it described as a reciprocal move on Tuesday, the Syrian government announced that 17 diplomats from the US, UK, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany and Canada were now considered "personae non gratae".

All Turkish diplomatic staff were also declared unwelcome.

"The Syrian Arab Republic still believes in the importance of dialogue based on principles of equality and mutual respect," a foreign ministry statement said.

"We hope the countries that initiated these steps will adopt those principles, which would allow relations to return to normal again."

The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut says it will be a long time before the Western states are prepared to re-establish diplomatic ties.

US ambassador Robert Ford was called back to Washington in October over fears for his safety, while all British embassy staff were withdrawn in March on security grounds.

France also closed its embassy that month in protest at the "scandalous" repression of dissent by the government.

Heavy clashes

On Sunday, President Assad told parliament that Syria was facing not an internal crisis but an external war, waged against it because of its support for resistance to Israel.

Image caption There have been fierce clashes between soldiers and armed rebels in Syria in recent days

In his first public comment on the massacre at Houla, in which 108 people were killed on 25 May, Mr Assad said that even "monsters" would not have carried out such an act and it should prompt an end to bloodshed.

Survivors and human rights groups blamed the army and shabiha militiamen allied to the government for the deaths.

Tuesday's diplomatic move by the government came as activists said at least 34 people had been killed in violence across the country.

At least 15 soldiers were killed and dozens wounded, while four rebel fighters also died in fighting in several towns and villages in the Mediterranean province of Latakia, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"These are the heaviest clashes so far in the area since the beginning of the revolution," Rami Abdul Rahman, the head of the UK-based group, told the Reuters news agency.

Several villages south-west of the central city of Homs earlier came under intense army artillery- and mortar-fire, leaving five people dead, according to the Local Co-ordination Committees, an activist network.

Four civilians were also reportedly killed overnight in a "huge military operation" in Kafrouaid, a village in the northern province of Idlib.

The UN says at least 9,000 people have died since pro-democracy protests began in March 2011. In April, the Syrian government reported that 6,143 Syrian citizens had been killed by "terrorist groups".