Citing security concerns, the United States has pulled all its diplomats out of Syria, and Britain has recalled its ambassador from Damascus as fresh attacks by President Bashar al-Assad's government forces reportedly killed at least 50 people.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists that U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and all embassy staff left Syria on the morning of February 6 and the embassy's American flag "has been taken down."
"We have concluded that we need to suspend operations at our embassy in Damascus in light of the fact that we have security concerns about the safety of our personnel," she said.
The collapse of diplomatic relations between Damascus and Washington comes as the Syrian regime continues to defy calls from western powers and the Arab League to halt a crackdown on dissent that has killed more than 6,000 people since last March.
Syria Remains Defiant
In the wake of the U.S. embassy closing, Syria's cultural attaché in Washington, Roua Shurbaji, told Reuters that her government has "worked to spare no effort to ensure the protection and the safety and security of all the diplomatic premises and personnel in Damascus."
She refuted media reports that the regime is sowing death and chaos in the country, maintaining that the government has acknowledged the legitimate demands of its people and is undertaking reforms.
Shurbaji said "Syria is an independent, sovereign country and the legitimacy of the president is decided by the people of Syria and the power he has right now is given to him by the people of Syria and only the people of Syria have to decide how and when and if this situation is going to change."
Following reports that the regime intensified its attacks in Homs on February 6, UN chief Ban Ki-moon called the violence "unacceptable before humanity."
Activists also said civilians were also killed when security forces opened fire in the cities of Aleppo and Zabadani, as well as Damascus.
Earlier, U.S. President Barack Obama had said in a televised interview that Washington has been "relentless in sending a message that it is time for Assad to go." He added, "This is not going to be a matter of if, it's going to be a matter of when."
In Britain's parliament, British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed "abhorrence" at the continuing violence.
He said Syria's ambassador had been summoned to the Foreign Office to convey that message and Britain’s ambassador to Syria recalled for consultations.
On February 4, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council draft resolution that would have called for al-Assad to step down.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris that both countries would "not abandon” Syria.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said China and Russia "will come to regret" their votes.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that approving the resolution, which was backed by the Arab League and supported by the Security Council's 13 other members, would have amounted to taking sides in what he called Syria's "civil war."
Lavrov and Russian Foreign Intelligence Service head Mikhail Fradkov are expected to travel to Damascus on February 7 to meet with Assad.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry rejected U.S. accusations that China and Russia were sheltering the Syrian regime, saying Beijing only wanted to uphold justice.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul also expressed his country's disappointment over the veto by Russia and China.
"Everyone should remember that the Cold War period is over," he said. "Violations of human rights within a country and the use of military force against the people have no place in the world anymore. This has been ignored in this respect."
Compiled from agency reports