BEIRUT — Angry supporters of President Bashar Assad's regime hurled tomatoes and eggs at the U.S. ambassador to Syria on Thursday as he entered the office of a leading opposition figure and then tried to break into the building, trapping him inside for three hours.
The Obama administration blamed the Syrian government for the attack in Damascus, saying it was part of an ongoing, orchestrated campaign to intimidate American diplomats in the country. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the attack as "wholly unjustified."
Ambassador Robert Ford, an outspoken critic of Assad's crackdown on the 6-month-old revolt against the regime, has angered Syrian authorities before by showing support for the uprising. The latest incident promises to raise tensions even further.
Ford came under attack by about 100 Assad supporters as he arrived for the meeting with Hassan Abdul-Azim, who heads the outlawed Arab Socialist Democratic Union party. Abdul-Azim is a strong critic of Assad's regime and was briefly detained by authorities earlier this year.
Such incidents are usually not spontaneous in Syria, and Thursday's attack came amid high tension between the two nations, as well as accusations by Damascus that Washington is inciting violence in the country.
The protesters were ready with eggs and tomatoes when the delegation arrived and threw them at the Americans as they entered the building.
In Washington, the State Department said a rowdy, violent mob tried to attack Ford and several American embassy workers in Damascus. Spokesman Mark Toner said Ford and his colleagues were unharmed and are now safe.
However, several heavily armored embassy vehicles sent to help extricate them from the situation were badly damaged with broken windows and dents when the same crowd hurled rocks, White House and State Department officials said.
"This inexcusable assault is clearly part of ongoing campaign of intimidation aimed at diplomats ... who are raising questions about what is going on inside Syria," Clinton said. "It reflects an intolerance on the part of the regime and its supporters."
White House spokesman Jay Carney called the attack "unwarranted and unjustifiable," but said the U.S. had no plans to recall Ford from Damascus.
Trying to keep a low profile, Ford and his colleagues had parked about a block away from Abdul-Azim's office and walked to the building, where they were confronted by the crowd, according to Toner.
Abdul-Azim said Ford was inside his office when the Assad supporters tried to force their way in, breaking some door locks. Office staff prevented them from rushing in, but the ambassador was trapped inside for about three hours. Ford called the U.S. Embassy for help and alerted Syrian authorities to the situation, but Syrian security forces did not show up for more than an hour.
Syria's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that as soon as it was contacted by the U.S. Embassy regarding Ford, it called in security authorities, who "took all measures needed to protect the ambassador and his team and secured their return to their work in accordance with Syria's international commitments."
Speaking to The Associated Press while Ford was still trapped in his office, Abdul-Azim said: "Now that security forces are here, I believe his life is not in danger."
Scores of angry Syrians stood outside the building ready to pelt Ford again if stepped outside. Smashed eggs could be seen at the entrance as several policemen guarded the gate.
"We don't want him anywhere in Syria and if I ever see him I will throw whatever I am carrying at him," said 21-year-old university student Majd Mutlaq, standing outside Abdul-Azim's office with a bag of eggs and tomatoes. Mutlaq said he showed up after he heard the ambassador was inside.
Another man who joined the protesters, construction worker Mohammed Tawil, said: "We don't want the American ambassador here and whoever receives him is an agent."
Ford has angered the Syrian regime in recent months by traveling to centers of protest outside of Damascus in a show of solidarity with the anti-government uprising. The latest incident could further raise tensions between Washington and Damascus, which has accused the United States of helping incite violence in Syria. In August, President Barack Obama demanded Assad resign, saying he had lost legitimacy as a ruler.
The incident occurred nearly two weeks after Abdul-Azim headed a meeting of more than 200 opposition figures inside Syria that called on Assad to end his deadly crackdown or face an escalation of peaceful protests. The gathering was notable because it took place inside Syria, rather than in a neighboring country, as most others have.
The opposition also said they opposed any foreign intervention in Syria or the use of arms to overthrow the regime.
Abdul-Azim said he reiterated that to Ford. "I told the ambassador we are against any foreign intervention in Syrian affairs," he said in a telephone interview.
The attack on Ford came five days after government supporters threw eggs and stones at France's ambassador as he left a meeting in Damascus with a Greek Orthodox patriarch. Ambassador Eric Chevallier was unharmed.
Tensions between the West and Syria – Iran's closest Arab ally – have been rising for months.
Washington and the European Union have imposed sanctions on some Syrian officials, including Assad, because of the crackdown that has left some 2,700 people dead, according to the United Nations.
A trip in July by Ford and Chevallier to the central city of Hama to express support for protesters drew swift condemnation from the Syrian government, which said the unauthorized visits were proof that Washington was inciting violence in the Arab nation. Authorities then warned both ambassadors not to travel outside the capital without permission.
A month later, the Obama administration brushed off a complaint by Syrian authorities that Ford had violated the regime's travel rules again by leaving Damascus without permission. The complaint concerned Ford's trip in August to the southern village of Jassem, where he met opposition activists.
Last month, Ford and several other ambassadors expressed their condolences to the family of a rights advocate who was killed.
The U.S. has maintained diplomatic relations with Syria even while protesting Assad's efforts to crush the uprising.
Republicans in Congress assailed Obama's decision to send an ambassador to the Syrian capital after a five-year absence, calling it an unwarranted reward for the government's anti-American positions. Their criticism has grown stronger as more have been killed in the uprising.
But the administration has defended Ford's continued presence in Damascus, insisting that he is providing valuable information on the tumult across Syria while offering moral support to the protesters.
Elsewhere in Syria, the army continued its military operations in the central town of Rastan amid heavy clashed between troops and army defectors, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The group said four people were killed in Syria Thursday, three of them in the central province of Homs and one in the northwestern province of Idlib.
AP writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
Bassem Mroue can be reached at http://twitter.com/bmroue