The German government expelled four Syrian diplomats, escalating a standoff after this week’s arrest in Berlin of two men suspected of spying for Syrian intelligence on opposition groups active in Germany.
The four embassy personnel and their families have three days to leave the country, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters. He informed the Syrian ambassador of the decision today after summoning the envoy on Feb. 7, the day of the arrests, to warn against espionage activity.
“We won’t accept this in any way,” Westerwelle said in Berlin, without elaborating on specific allegations against the diplomats, saying only that the move to expel them came amid a “comprehensive background” of espionage allegations as well as the political situation in Syria. “In Germany, no opposition figures will come under pressure, at least not without consequences,” he said.
The diplomatic scuffle adds to the international deadlock over Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s forces continued to shell cities where the opposition is concentrated. The United Nations estimates that more than 5,400 people have died since protests in the country began last March.
Russia is seeking to broker talks between the Syrian government and the opposition after its government and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on Feb. 4 backing an Arab League plan for a transfer of power in the country.
Westerwelle said Germany will push for a “new attempt” at the UN and called for a joint UN-Arab League observer mission and a special envoy from the world body for the Syria conflict.
Observing the Opposition
The arrests in Berlin two days ago were part of an operation involving 70 investigators, who searched the suspects’ apartments and those of six others. The men taken into custody were identified as Mahmoud El A., 47, who holds German and Lebanese citizenship, and Akram O., 34, a Syrian national.
The two are “strongly suspected of carefully observing the Syrian opposition in Germany for a Syrian intelligence agency for years,” the Federal Prosecutor said in a statement.
Suspicion of Syrian espionage in Germany was underscored on Dec. 28, when the Foreign Ministry called on investigators to clarify the alleged beating of a Syrian opposition figure, a member of the Green Party in Berlin’s Mitte district, after the party said it was probably the work of Syrian agents.
Police said at the time that the politician, Ferhad Ahma, had been beaten at his apartment early on Dec. 26 by two men posing as police officers. Local Greens officials accused the Syrian government of trying to intimidate Ahma.