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France to close Syria embassy: Sarkozy

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(BRUSSELS) - France will close its embassy in Syria to denounce the "scandalous" repression by President Bashar al-Assad's regime, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday at the close of an EU summit.

French Foreign Minister "Alain Juppe and I have decided to close our embassy in Syria," Sarkozy told a news conference.

"What is going on is scandalous, there are more than 8,000 dead, hundreds of children, and the city of Homs faces the risk of being wiped off the map. This is absolutely unacceptable," Sarkozy said.

He said the Syrian government's response to attempts to evacuate two injured French reporters, Edith Bouvier and William Daniels -- finally evacuated to Lebanon on Thursday and repatriated on Friday -- has been "particularly unacceptable".

Sarkozy also underlined that the EU in its final conclusions had recognised the Syrian National Council "as a legitimate representative of Syrians".

"I am in favour of organising, at least on Syria's borders, humanitarian zones enabling people persecuted by the Syrian regime to leave," he added.

The French ambassador in Damascus, Eric Chevallier, told AFP the embassy was preparing to close.

Jihad Makdissi, spokesman for the Syrian foreign ministry, regretted the decision.

"While it is a sovereign decision by the french authorities, it is unfortunate," he told AFP.

"I hope that the French diplomacy will put aside the negative approach and return to be part of the solution and not a part of the problem in order to help Syria overcome its painful crisis," he added.

Meanwhile, Razan Zeitouni, a member of the main opposition Local Coordination Committees, said the French action did not go far enough.

"It is neither useful, nor justified to close the embassy in Damascus if the decision does not aim to bring the regime down soon," she said.

The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, hailed the move.

"We applaud this decision and call on other European countries to follow suit so that the regime feels isolated," the Britain-based rights monitor said.

He also called on European governments to order Syrian embassies in their countries closed for being used as "centres to spy on activists."

The last time France closed its embassy in Damascus was in 1956, when Arab countries cut ties with France and Britain following their military campaign -- along with Israel -- against Egypt over its decision to nationalise the Suez Canal.

It took six years to reopen the embassy.

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