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Jordan expels Syrian ambassador in humiliating public announcement

By Maamoun Youssef

Associated Press

Published: Monday, May 26 2014 9:24 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Wednesday, May 22, 2013 file photo, Bahjat Suleiman, the Syrian ambassador to Jordan, speaks to reporters in Amman. Jordan has expelled the Syrian ambassador from the country, giving him 24 hours to leave Amman. The state-run Petra news agency said Monday, May 26, 2014 that the government declared Ambassador Bahjat Suleiman persona non-grata on Monday and asked him to leave.

Mohammad Hannon, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan ordered Syria's ambassador to leave the country within 24 hours in a humiliating public announcement made Monday on state-run media, accusing him of making "offensive" statements about the kingdom.

The dramatic expulsion of Ambassador Bahjat Suleiman appeared to be the start of a severing of relations with Syria. Soon after the announcement, Syria's state-run television said it would expel the Jordanian charge d'affaires in retaliation.

The move was unexpected, because Jordan has hosted a Syrian ambassador since the start of the country's 2011 uprising, despite quietly supporting rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

It wasn't clear if the border between the two countries, across which hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled, would be closed. Rebels control Syria's borders with Iraq and Turkey, leaving only the Lebanese and Jordanian border posts in the government's hands.

The land corridor with Jordan allows Syrian products to reach wealthy Gulf markets, providing much-needed relief to an economy shattered by three years of war.

Jordan also hosts nearly 600,000 registered Syrian refugees — although Jordanian officials say the real number is far higher.

Syria's conflict, now in its fourth year, has killed at least 160,000 people, according to activists. Nearly three million Syrians have fled the country.

Experts expressed surprise at the announcement, saying it was not in keeping with diplomatic protocol.

"The dramatic way he was expelled was strange, it's as if Jordan is cutting off its diplomatic relations with Syria," said military analyst Hisham Jaber, a retired brigadier general in the Lebanese military.

"The ambassador could have been summoned, and a complaint could have been lodged. But to say: 'Get out' — that's very tough."

Suleiman was declared persona non grata because of "continued offensive statements, through his personal contacts or writing in the media and the social media against the kingdom," the Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Sabah al-Rafie, said in a statement carried by the state-run Petra news agency.

She described his statements as "sheer departure from all diplomatic norms and conventions."

It was not immediately clear to what statements she was referring. But al-Rafie said Suleiman used Jordan as a platform to offend other Arab countries — a likely nod to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which back the uprising against Assad.

A Facebook page created by his fans suggested a man loyal to Assad and defiant in the face of diplomatic humiliation.

The "Network of those who love Mr. Ambassador Dr. Bahjat Suleiman" proudly posted what they said was his expulsion notice from Jordan.

Later, they posted a picture claiming to show Suleiman being carried on the shoulders of supporters. "Syria needs you more," was emblazoned across the photograph.

"Welcome to the den of lions," it read, in a reference to Assad, which means "lion" in Arabic.

Suleiman was the head of one of Syria's most powerful internal intelligence branches, and was known for supporting Assad's dynastic rise to power, according to Jaber and Syria analyst Aron Lund.

He was sent to Jordan as ambassador in 2009, perhaps after a falling out with Assad's inner circle, they said.

Inside Syria, al-Qaida's main affiliate meanwhile claimed responsibility for two deadly car bombings on Sunday in a pro-government neighborhood of the central city of Homs.

The claim for the attacks in the Zahra district — home mainly to Alawites and Christians who have mostly supported Assad in the civil war — was posted on the Twitter feed of the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, and militant websites.

The bombings, which killed at least 10 people, undermined the semblance of calm that had returned to the shattered city following a cease-fire deal in May between rebels and pro-government forces.

"God has given a gift to his warrior servants of the Nusra Front in Homs," said the statement. "The two (cars) were detonated at the same time to kill the greatest number of thugs," it said, referring to pro-government gunmen.

The bombings suggest that even as rebels steadily lose ground across Syria, groups like the Nusra Front can still turn to large-scale bombings and attacks to pressure Assad.

The Zahra attacks could also threaten an agreement that is being negotiated between the government and the rebels in the al-Waar neighborhood, across the Orontes River from Homs.

Youssef reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed to his report from Beirut.

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