The German government said it was expelling four Syrian diplomats, escalating a standoff after this week’s arrest of two men suspected of spying for Syrian intelligence on opposition groups active in Germany.
The Syrian ambassador was informed today of the expulsion of the embassy personnel in Berlin, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in an e-mailed statement. The ministry had summoned the ambassador on Feb. 7, the day of the arrests, to warn against espionage activity.
“The position of the government was once again made unequivocally clear, that any activity against the Syrian opposition will not be accepted,” Westerwelle said. The embassy personnel, who are accused of activity not in compliance with diplomatic duties, have three days to leave the country with their families, according to the German Foreign Ministry.
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.
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.
Observing the Opposition
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.