Egypt imposes entry restrictions on Syrians

BEIRUT (AP) – Egypt restricted Syrians from entering the country on Monday. Officials cited reports that large numbers of Syrians support the Muslim Brotherhood, which is bloodily opposing the military’s overthrow of Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi.

The decision dealt a blow to Syria’s largest Western-backed opposition group, which is leading the fight against President Bashar Assad from its headquarters in Cairo.

According to official sources and representatives of the opposition, many of whom live in the Egyptian capital, the Egyptian authorities have asked Syrians to apply for a visa before arriving in the country.

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Seasoned Syrian opposition representative Haitham Maleh said he was detained at Cairo airport for several hours on Monday before being allowed entry – an exception made on his behalf “after several political parties intervened with Egyptian authorities”.

“This Egyptian decision is a reward for Bashar Assad for all Syrians he has killed,” said Maleh from the Egyptian capital on Monday evening. Dozens of moneyless Syrian families were refused entry and two planes carrying Syrians were returned to Syria and Lebanon, where they originated.

“I’ve lived in Egypt for two years. I have an apartment and a bank account in Egypt, ”he said earlier from Cairo Airport.

Egyptian airport officials said the new measures followed reports that large numbers of Syrians in Egypt supported the Muslim Brotherhood and participated in violence following the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. The airport officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

In response, the Syrian National Coalition deplored all crimes committed by Syrian nationals in Egypt, saying that Syrians “should not be punished for individual crimes”.

In Syria’s conflict, in which a rebel movement with Islamist groups is fighting against Assad’s regime, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood has played a major role in attempts to create leadership in exile. The organization is a weaker version of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, but is still considered the most politically organized Syrian opposition group.

The opposition found itself on the defensive after a series of setbacks by Assad’s forces, reinforced by Lebanese fighters from the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, the ruling Ba’ath Party, which has ruled Syria since 1963 and largely seen as the front line of the Assad family’s iron rule, replaced its aging leadership, including longtime Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, a close and longtime Assad Loyalist.

Al-Sharaa, 73, is considered a somewhat consensual figure, and his name was mentioned by the Turks last year as a possible number to run an interim administration to end the country’s civil war. Like the majority of Syrians, al-Sharaa is a Sunni. His removal from command of the Ba’ath Party could be a move by Assad to secure al-Sharaah’s future chances as a potentially acceptable figure for both sides during a political transition.

Syria’s state television said the Ba’ath Party’s new command, the party’s top decision-making body, was elected during a meeting of the party’s central committee.

It published the names of 16 members of the new leadership, who did not include any of the party’s old leaders except Assad.

A senior Ba’ath Party official, Fayez Sayegh, told The Associated Press that the reshuffle – the first since 2005 – was intended to “pump new blood into the party.”

The opposition and Washington opposed the change.

“This is an attempt to improve the regime’s image,” said senior SNC member Abdelbaset Sieda. “But the decision-making group is the same and has not changed.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US does not recognize Assad’s legitimacy. “We continue to ask him to step aside. But we know we have to find a way to work with all parties to get back to the table, ”she said.

Also on Monday, the opposition person appointed in March, charged with forming a transitional government to administer the rebel-held areas, resigned, citing his inability to form a government. “I have decided to resign for the general good of the Syrian revolution,” Ghassan Hitto said in a statement.

Other opposition members disliked Hitto’s perceived closeness to the Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood. He had practically gone broke since his appointment – a result of the rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia vying for influence among the Sunni-dominated Syrian opposition. Both countries have been prominent supporters of forces fighting to oust Assad, but Qatar has recently faded into the background.

A former Syrian political prisoner with close ties to Saudi Arabia, Ahmad al-Jarba, was elected to lead the coalition on Saturday.

Psaki said the US welcomed his election.

“We hope to make progress together to prevent Syria’s total collapse into chaos and reconstruction – urge rebuilding the social fabric,” she said.

The violence continued on Monday.

According to the state news agency SANA, two car bombs exploded in the predominantly Akrama and Christian quarter in downtown Homs every few minutes, killing at least four people and injuring 40. Activists confirmed the explosions but had no further details. No one took responsibility for the attack, but in the past car bombs and suicide bombings have been accused of al-Qaeda-affiliated militants who have joined the rebel movement.

Assad’s armed forces have launched a major offensive to retake Homs, a transport hub between the capital Damascus and the coastal areas that are largely loyal to the regime. Rebels have held parts of the city they captured more than a year ago, but remain under siege.

Forces loyal to Assad have crept into the Khaldiyeh neighborhood with constant mortar fire and tank bombardment to gain control of the eastern parts of the district, said Rami Abdul-Rahman of the British Human Rights Observatory, which monitors clashes. He estimated that government forces had confiscated 11 buildings in Khaldiyeh. Overall, he said, the government now controls about 20 percent of the area.

“You are making progress,” said Abdul-Rahman in a telephone interview.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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