US envoy target of pro-government Syrian protest

By MATTHEW LEE | July 10, 2011 | 4:29 PM EDT

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA and according to SANA Syrian soldiers carry the coffin of their comrade who was killed in recent violence in the country, during his funeral procession at a hospital in Damascus, Syria, on Saturday July 9, 2011. Syrian commanders told security forces they were fighting terrorists and ordered them to open fire on anti-regime demonstrations even after they found unarmed protesters instead, Human Rights Watch said Saturday in a report citing defectors from President Bashar Assad's regime. (AP Photo/SANA) EDITORIAL USE ONLY

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. says pro-government demonstrators in the Syrian capital threw tomatoes, eggs and rocks at the U.S. Embassy to protest Ambassador Robert Ford's visit to the besieged rebel stronghold of Hama.

There were no reports of injuries, but a senior U.S. State Department official said two embassy employees were pelted with food during the 31-hour demonstration. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of sensitivity of the issue.

Ford on Thursday visited the central city of Hama, where he was greeted by friendly crowds who put flowers on his windshield and olive branches on his car, chanting, "Down with the regime!" The State Department said Ford made the trip to express support for the right of Syrian people to demonstrate peacefully.

The Syrian government denounced Ford's visit, saying the unauthorized trip was proof that Washington was inciting violence in the Arab nation. The main headline of state-run daily Al-Thawra read, "Ford in Hama and Syrians are angry."

According to the U.S. official, supporters of President Bashar Assad's government organized a raucous demonstration outside the embassy in Damascus that began Friday and continued until Saturday evening.

The official said the demonstration broke up only after an embassy security officer appealed to Syrian contacts, who sent additional forces to quell the protests.

The Obama administration has criticized Assad's government for its violent crackdown on peaceful protests against his 11-year rule. Clashes between protestors and Assad's supporters have resulted in the deaths of 1,600, in addition to 350 members of the security forces.

But the White House has so far refrained from calling for an end to the Assad family's four decades of rule, leery of pressing too hard as it tries to wind down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and faces criticism for being part of the coalition battling Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

Congressional Republicans have pressed the administration to withdraw Ford from Syria, an ally of Iran that supports the Islamic militant groups Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The U.S. did not send an ambassador to Damascus for five years in protest of Syria's alleged role in the assassination of a political leader in Lebanon.

The U.S. official said Ford registered his "displeasure" with the protests during a meeting Sunday with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who pledged to protect the embassy.