Hundreds of Syrian riot police ringed the shuttered and closed U.S. Embassy in Damascus on Thursday, as tens of thousands of Syrians converged on a central square for a government-orchestrated protest to denounce a deadly U.S. raid near the Iraqi border.
The troops, wearing helmets and armed with batons and shields, took up positions around the embassy and the adjacent U.S. residence building. Two fire engines were parked nearby although the massive anti-American rally was to take place at a square about 1.6 kilometers away.
The Syrian government has demanded that Washington apologize for Sunday's cross-border helicopter strike by American special forces that killed eight people.
The embassy was closed because of security concerns related to the protest, and the American school was also shut for the day. The Syrian government has ordered the closure of the school, expected within a week, and the immediate closing of the American cultural center linked to the embassy.
As the protesters filled the Youssef al-Azmi square and surrounding streets in the upscale al-Maliki neighborhood, some Syrians formed circles and danced traditional dances while women and students joined the peaceful crowds.
America the sponsor of destruction and wars, read one of the banners carried by the protesters, who waved national flags and totted pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
We will not submit to terrorism, read another.
Although authorities usually keep Syria under tight control and Americans have generally felt welcome in the country, violence against U.S. and European interests at protests has erupted in the past.
Thursday's protest came as Syria hardened its stance against the U.S., demanding a formal apology for Sunday's attack in the eastern border community of Abu Kamal that Damascus says killed eight civilians. It threatened to cut off cooperation on Iraqi border security if there are more American raids on Syria territory.
There has been no formal acknowledgment of the raid from Washington. But U.S. officials, speaking to the media on condition of anonymity, have said the target of the raid was Badran Turki al-Mazidih, a top al-Qaida in Iraq figure who operated a network of smuggling fighters into the war-torn country. The Iraqi national also goes by the name Abu Ghadiyah.
In announcing its closure Thursday, the U.S. Embassy also warned Americans to be vigilant - raising concerns about the safety of U.S. citizens in Syria.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood said Wednesday that Syria had formally notified the U.S. of the closure order for the cultural center, effective immediately, and the school by November 6.
Wood said Washington was considering how to respond and stressed the U.S. expects the Syrian government to provide adequate security for the buildings housing the cultural center and the Damascus Community School.
Though Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a destabilizing country in the Middle East, in recent months, Damascus has been trying to change its image and end years of global seclusion.
But American accusations that Syria wasn't doing enough to prevent foreign fighters from crossing its borders into Iraq remains a sore point in relations. Syria says it is doing all it can to safeguard its long, porous border.