BEIRUT — U.S. Marines in the capital of Syria on Monday drove back dozens of pro-government demonstrators who stormed and vandalized the American Embassy compound, witnesses said.
The attack on the U.S. compound and a similar protest at the French Embassy further raised tensions between the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad and Western nations increasingly alarmed about his ongoing crackdown against democracy protesters.
Witnesses said that violent protesters, angered by visits by the U.S. and French ambassadors to the opposition stronghold of Hama on Saturday, breached the walls of both embassy compounds, wrote graffiti, threw rocks and sticks, and raised the Syrian flag inside the American compound.
Protesters smashed windows and vandalized cars belonging to embassy staff, demanding the closure of the two missions. Gunfire dispersed the mobs at the French facility.
"The French have interfered in our internal affairs," said a participant at the French Embassy demonstration. "They have to stop interfering ... them and the Americans."
A woman at the protest said, "A Syrian shoe is worth all of France."
In Paris, the French Foreign Ministry said three embassy employees were injured. The ambassador's car was vandalized, and the crowd tried to break through the front doors of the embassy using "a battering ram," the ministry statement said, adding that French security forces fired three warning shots, due to the "passivity" of Syrian military personnel.
The embassy stormings, possibly coordinated, were likely for domestic consumption, an attempt to bolster the spirits of the regime's hard-liners following the visits to Hama on Saturday by U.S. envoy Robert S. Ford and France's Eric Chevallier. They toured the city a day after hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators gathered to voice their opposition to the Assad regime's four-decade rule.
The diplomatic visits appear to have humiliated and enraged the Syrian leadership by highlighting the peaceful nature of the anti-government protests in that city, and may have prevented security forces from unleashing the full brunt of their arsenal to crush the demonstrations.
"How ironic that the Syrian government lets an anti-U.S. demonstration proceed freely while their security thugs beat down olive branch-carrying peaceful protesters elsewhere," Ford said in a statement released Sunday after a smaller protest at the U.S. Embassy.
"Hama and the Syrian crisis is not about the U.S. at all," he said. "This is a crisis ... about dignity, human rights and the rule of law."
Both the U.S. and French governments have vowed to summon Syria's ambassadors to protest the violence against their missions.
The Local Coordinating Committees, a network of activists, announced early Monday that that nearly 2,000 Syrians have been killed, 15,000 arrested and many more gone missing in the nearly four-month uprising.
(Special correspondent Devorah Lauter in Paris and a special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.)