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Ottawa urges Canadians to leave Syria

The federal government is again urging Canadians to get out of Syria while they still can.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says it is becoming increasingly difficult for Canadian diplomats and consular officials to do their jobs under restrictions imposed by President Bashar Assad.

“We are declaring a voluntary evacuation of all Canadians in Syria,” Baird said. “We will provide specialized consular services to those who wish to leave.

“Our embassy in Damascus is also available to assist Canadians in Syria, as well as their spouses and their dependent children with the needed travel documents, visas, between now and Jan. 14, 2012.”

More than 5,000 Syrian citizens have been killed and “thousands and thousands and thousands” more injured in the country’s popular uprising against Assad’s authoritarian regime, Baird said.

Canada and others have imposed tough sanctions on the country but Assad has steadfastly refused to relinquish power.

Assad’s regime “has lost all legitimacy and its abhorrent behaviour will not be tolerated,” Baird said.

He said sanctions imposed by the Arab League will have significant impact on air transport to and from Syria and he’s warning Canadians in the country they will have an increasingly difficult time making travel arrangements as the security situation deteriorates.

“These actions are meant to assist Canadians now so that they are not put in a position in the future where our capacity could be very reduced without warning,” he said.

“I must warn that, should Canadians stay in Syria, we will not be able to guarantee the current service at our embassy or that commercial options to leave the country will remain available. We strongly encourage Canadian citizens and their spouses and dependants to apply for travel documents now. We will do everything we can to expedite those applications … while options still exist.

“The time to leave Syria is now.”

The Obama administration is predicting Assad’s downfall. A U.S. State Department official told Congress on Wednesday that Assad’s repression may allow him to hang on to power, but only for a short time.

Assad’s regime is growing more isolated with the mounting international sanctions to punish his regime for its bloody crackdown that has mostly targeted unarmed, peaceful protesters.

Human Rights Watch has issued a report alleging that dozens of Syrian military commanders and officials authorized or gave direct orders for widespread killings, torture, and illegal arrests during the wave of anti-government protests.

Assad’s regime has sealed off the country to most outsiders while clinging to its claim that the uprising is the work of foreign extremists, not true reform-seekers aiming to open the authoritarian political system.

The United Nations and other observers dismiss that notion entirely, blaming the regime for widespread killings, rape and torture.

Witnesses and activists inside Syria routinely describe brutal repression, with government forces firing on unarmed protesters and conducting house-to-house raids in which families are dragged from their homes in the night.

Earlier this week, Canadian oil giant Suncor Energy Inc. suspended its operations in Syria after economic sanctions against Assad’s regime were imposed.