France recalled its ambassador to Damascus on Wednesday as Syrian President Bashar Assad came under increasing pressure from home and abroad, with army defectors killing at least eight soldiers in a daring attack on the military.
French Ambassador Eric Chevallier was ordered home in the wake of recent attacks against diplomatic missions and increasing violence stemming from Syria's 8-month-old uprising.
Pro-regime demonstrators have stormed the diplomatic offices of France, the U.S. and other countries critical of the Syrian government. Syrian forces fired tear gas Wednesday to disperse demonstrators outside the Qatari and United Arab Emirates embassies in Damascus.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said “the vise is tightening” around the Syrian regime.
“I'm convinced the Syrian people will keep up their fight, and France will continue to do everything possible to help,” he told the lower house of parliament.
The move comes as the Arab League met in Morocco, where the 22-member group was expected to formally suspend Damascus over its bloody crackdown.
France, Syria's former colonial ruler, has been increasingly critical of Assad's regime in recent weeks, urging him to step down and meeting with opposition figures. French government spokeswoman Valerie Pecresse said Paris is working with the Syrian opposition “to try to develop a political alternative” to Assad's government.
Assad, who inherited power 11 years ago from his father, is facing a swiftly escalating challenge to his rule.
Syrian army defectors attacked military and intelligence bases near the capital and an army checkpoint in Hama province on Wednesday.
Attacks on regime forces by renegade troops have been growing in recent days as the country's political crisis appears to be spiraling out of control.
Although activists say the anti-government protesters have remained largely peaceful, an armed insurgency has developed in recent months, targeting Assad's military and security forces.
Wednesday's deadliest attack was in the central province of Hama, where army defectors killed at least eight soldiers and security forces in an assault on a checkpoint in Kfar Zeita village, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Syrian army defectors also said they launched several attacks on Assad's military and intelligence bases near the capital before dawn Wednesday.
The Free Syrian Army said in a statement that its main pre-dawn attack targeted a compound run by Air Force Intelligence in the Damascus suburb of Harasta. Defectors also hit military checkpoints in the Damascus suburbs of Douma, Qaboun and Arabeen and Saqba.
Wednesday's attacks could not be independently confirmed, and the Free Syrian Army released no details about the fighting or possible casualties.
A Syrian opposition figure said the operation in Harasta was carried out by defectors who attacked the compound from three sides with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. He added that the administrative building was damaged, and the attackers made sure not to hit a nearby building where detainees were being held.
The opposition figure, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations, said all the defectors' troops returned safely. He quoted residents in the area as saying that ambulances rushed to the military compound after the attack.
Attacks by army defectors have been rare near Assad's seat of power in Damascus, although there have been growing reports of the clashes in the northwestern province of Idlib, the central region of Homs and the southern province of Daraa.
The Syrian government has largely sealed off the country, barring most foreign journalists and preventing independent reporting. Details gathered by activist groups and witnesses, along with amateur videos, have become key channels of information.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 people were killed elsewhere Wednesday, including seven in the central province of Homs. It said that four others, including three defectors, were killed in the central province of Hama after they were ambushed by troops loyal to Assad.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said six people have been so far killed on Wednesday, three in Homs, two in Idlib and one in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani.
Also, the observatory said Syrian security forces stormed the University of Qalamoon, north of Damascus, where students were holding an anti-regime sit-in. Dozens were reported to have been detained.
Violence has continued unabated, even after Syria agreed on Nov. 2 to an Arab-brokered peace deal that called for the regime to halt violence against protesters, pull tanks and armored vehicles out of cities, release political prisoners and allow access to journalists and rights groups.
On Monday, defectors killed 34 of Assad's soldiers and members of the security in Daraa, on one of the bloodiest days of the 8-month-old uprising. The U.N. says that more than 3,500 people have been killed since Assad launched his crackdown on the protesters in mid-March.
AP Writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report from Paris.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue