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Syria

Germany expels Syrian embassy staff

Germany has told a handful of staff at the Syrian embassy to leave. The gesture comes as EU ministers meet to discuss measures that could be taken to help the Syrian opposition and crack down on the Assad regime.

Germany expelled four Syrian embassy employees on Monday, according to the country's foreign minister, as ties between Berlin and Damascus continued to deteriorate.

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said it was a “clear sign that we are reducing relations with the Assad regime to an absolute minimum.”

"We are counting on the [opposition] national coalition growing more stable and developing as soon as possible functioning institutions for the political transition," he added.

However, Westerwelle did not comment on the timing of the decision, nor on whether specific events had triggered it.

In accordance with diplomatic protocol, the staff will have to leave Germany by Thursday. The expulsions are not the first - Germany expelled the Syrian ambassador in May after the Houla massacre north of Homs, which left over 100 people dead. Britain, France, Italy and Spain took a similar action.

The development comes on the same day as European foreign ministers met in Brussels to discuss full recognition of the Syrian opposition group led by Moaz al-Khatib.

"This is a clear sign of the upgrading of the Syrian coalition," Westerwelle said.

"This is a coalition that represents the legitimate interests of the Syrian people and we want this to be recognized by the EU," he added.

Considering options

British Foreign Secretary William Hague also called on EU member states to boost their practical assistance to Syria's opposition. He tentatively raised the possibility of lifting an embargo which prevents countries from arming Syria's rebels, in three months' time.

"We have never, at any stage, sent arms into any of the conflicts in the Middle East, so I fully recognize all the arguments on that," he said.

The EU's foreign policy coordinator, Catherine Ashton, also said that discussions would focus on the possibility of referring Syrian President Bashar Assad to the International Criminal Court.

"It is important that we recognize the terrible things that have been happening in Syria and the responsibility that he [al-Assad] has," Ashton said.

Assad, she added, had no business being in a position of power "if your response to peaceful demonstrations is the murder of your citizens."

EU executives also announced the organization's intention to boost its humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees by over 30 million euros ($39 million). That would raise the total that the EU has pledged to the war-torn country to over 310 million euros.

sej/pfd (AFP, dpa)