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US moves to reduce diplomatic presence in Syria

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Sep 14 (Reuters) The United States moved to reduce its diplomatic presence in Syria today following an attack on its embassy in Damascus, by offering free flights home to dependents and nonessential diplomats who wish to leave.

The decision does not reflect any further deterioration in the long-strained U.S.-Syrian relationship but is rather a response to security concerns following Tuesday's attack, said a State Department official who asked not to be named.

Four men shouting Islamic slogans tried to blow up the embassy in Damascus, but their plot was foiled after Syrian guards killed three of them in a shootout. The fourth man later died of his injuries.

While no U.S. diplomats were hurt, the State Department said the incident ''underscores the presence of terrorist groups in Syria that have the ability and intent to target American interests.'' A Syrian guard was killed in the attack and 13 people were wounded.

''The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer nonessential travel to Syria,'' the department said in a warning posted on its Web site. ''American citizens currently in Syria should carefully evaluate their own security situations and consider departing.'' The United States recalled its ambassador from Syria in February 2005 after the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in Beirut. Washington blames Syria for the killing but Damascus denies involvement.

U.S. criticism of Syria grew this summer during Israel's 34-day war with Lebanon's Hizbollah guerrillas, who are supported by Syria and Iran.

The United States has long listed Syria as a ''state sponsor of terrorism'' because of its support for Hizbollah and Palestinian militant groups. It has also accused Syria of failing to prevent anti-U.S. insurgents crossing its border into neighboring Iraq.

The decision to allow dependents and some staff to leave the embassy, ''certainly isn't a reflection of any change in our diplomatic relations ... It is just a response to the security situation,'' said the State Department official.

''We are not talking about really reducing in a substantial way our diplomatic presence but primarily getting dependents out of the way,'' he added. ''(The) staff there isn't that big to begin with, there aren't that many dependents there, so I don't think you are talking about a huge number of people.'' Reuters LL DB2118

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