France says Syrian leader struggling to hold power

Associated Press
The damaged front side of the U.S. embassy is seen after pro-government protesters attacked the embassy compound in Damascus, Syria, Monday, July 11, 2011. A U.S. official says the Obama administration will formally protest an attack on the American Embassy in Syria and may seek compensation for damage caused when a mob breached the wall of the compound before being dispersed by Marine guards. (AP Photo)
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BEIRUT (AP) — France's prime minister said Tuesday the attacks by pro-government demonstrators on the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus show President Bashar Assad's hold on power is slipping.

Speaking on Europe-1 radio, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Monday's attacks show that "each passing day makes it more and more difficult" for the authoritarian leader to remain in power.

Mobs smashed windows and spray-painted obscenities and graffiti on the walls of both embassies Monday to protest visits last week by the American and French ambassadors to Hama, an opposition stronghold in central Syria. Three French embassy workers were injured in the melee, the French Foreign Ministry said.

Syrian authorities called the ambassadors' visits to Hama interference in the country's internal affairs and accused the envoys of undermining Syria's stability.

Police on Tuesday beefed up their presence outside both missions in the capital, Damascus. At the French embassy, workers were cleaning the walls outside and painting over red graffiti.

The U.S. and France accused Syrian forces of being too slow to respond to the violence and demanded the government abide by its international obligations to protect diplomatic missions. The U.S. formally protested, calling the attacks "outrageous," and saying protesters were incited by a television station heavily influenced by Syrian authorities.

Assad has been trying to contain a four-month-old uprising that has posed the gravest challenge to his family's 40-year dynasty in Syria, one of the most tightly controlled countries in the Middle East.

He has tried to crush the unrest using a mixture of brute force and promises of reform, but the uprising has only grown more defiant. Enraged by a government crackdown that activists say has killed some 1,600 people — most of the unarmed activists — the protest movement is now calling for nothing less than the downfall of the regime.

Syria's deadly government crackdown has led to international condemnation and sanctions.

The government organized three days of talks on reform this week, but the main opposition factions boycotted the meeting, saying there should not be dialogue until the deadly crackdown ends.

At the meeting's closing session Tuesday, participants issued a statement calling for the release of political prisoners and detainees who have not been convicted of any crime. The participants, including some government and some opposition figures and intellectuals, also recommended the formation of a legal committee that would revise the Syrian constitution.

But the meeting was not expected to produce any breakthrough to immediately end the bloodshed.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — in some of her harshest criticism yet — said Assad had "lost legitimacy" and was "not indispensable," but stopped short of calling on him to step down.

Syria's Foreign Ministry lashed back, saying Clinton's comments are "additional evidence about the United States' flagrant intervention in Syria's internal affairs."

Also Tuesday, France urged the United Nations Security Council to take action on Syria.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France was trying to convince the Russians in particular "that it is not acceptable for the Security Council to allow what's happening in Syria to happen without reacting."

China and Russia are seen as blocking the adoption of a U.N. resolution against Syria.

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AP Writer Jenny Barchfield in Paris contributed to this report.

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Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter/zkaram

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