The latest diplomatic crisis between Damascus and Washington came as 16 people were reportedly killed in new violence, including eight civilians in the central protest hub city of Homs and soldiers in clashes with army deserters.
“Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustapha, will leave Washington for Damascus to hold consultations with Syrian leaders,” Al-Ikhbariya television reported on Monday.
Earlier a US embassy official in Damascus said that ambassador Robert Ford, an open critic of President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on political dissent, has left Syria indefinitely for security reasons.
The US State Department said Ford was pulled out due to “credible threats” against his safety.
“Ambassador Robert Ford is on leave indefinitely. Washington decided to give him the leave out of concerns about his personal safety,” the embassy official said.
Ford has come in for heavy criticism by regime supporters in Damascus who have accused him of helping incite violence in the country, where according to UN estimates more than 3000 people have been killed since mid-March.
The ambassador has also angered the regime by visiting protest hubs outside the capital in a show of solidarity with pro-democracy demonstrators.
State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said Ford was brought back to Washington because of “credible threats against his personal safety in Syria”.
And State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said commentary about Ford in official Syrian newspapers led to the decision to pull him out.
The media are “going after him personally, spreading lies about what he is up to. And the concern is that this could lead to further violence,” she said.
Nuland said Ford would return to Damascus “after his consultations are completed” in Washington, stressing, however, that Syria had international obligations to ensure the ambassador’s safety.
Meanwhile the US embassy will “continue to do its work as normal” in Ford’s absence, said Nuland.
Assad’s supporters late last month tried to attack Ford and embassy staff as they visited a Syrian opposition leader in Damascus.
At the time the State Department said pro-regime demonstrators seriously damaged US vehicles and pelted the visitors with tomatoes but did not hurt Ford or his staff.
Following the incident, the United States summoned the Syrian ambassador, and, according to Nuland, he was “read the riot act”.
Washington has repeatedly urged the UN Security Council and the international community to step up pressure on Syria over its bloody response to opposition to the government in Damascus.
On Monday, Syrian forces in Homs raked several neighbourhoods with heavy artillery fire.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said eight people were killed in Homs while another civilian died when a rocket-propelled grenade fired by troops in the northwestern province of Idlib hit his car.
The Britain-based group also reported the death of two army defectors in Idlib province and said five others were killed in clashes with suspected deserters elsewhere in the province.
The report comes as an Arab League delegation is due to visit Damascus on Wednesday in a new attempt to defuse the tension and prod talks between Assad’s regime and the opposition.