BEIRUT -- Hundreds of Syrian government supporters attacked the U.S. Embassy in Damascus Monday, smashing windows and spray-painting walls with obscenities and graffiti that called the American ambassador a "dog." Guards at the French Embassy fired in the air to ward off another group of protesters.
The sharp escalation in tensions followed a visit last week by the American and French ambassadors to the city of Hama, a stronghold of opposition to authoritarian President Bashar Assad. Syrian authorities were angered by the visit and American Ambassador Robert Ford's harsh criticism afterward of the government crackdown on a four-month uprising. Mr. Ford's residence was also attacked Monday.
The United States and France both accused Syrian forces of being too slow to respond and demanded the government abide by its international obligations to protect diplomatic missions and allow envoys freedom of movement.
The United States said about 300 "thugs" breached the wall of the embassy compound before being dispersed by U.S. Marine guards. No injuries were reported.
"Ford get out now," protesters wrote on a paper hung on the U.S. Embassy's fence. "The people want to kick out the dog," read graffiti scrawled in red on the wall of the embassy, along with another line cursing the United States. The protesters smashed the embassy sign hanging over one gate.
Syrian-U.S. relations have been mired in mutual distrust for years. But Monday's attacks were the worst such violence since 2000, when a stone-throwing mob attacked and vandalized the U.S. Embassy and ambassador's residence over U.S. and British airstrikes against Iraq.
The attacks pose a renewed challenge to the Obama Administration.
The White House has criticized the Syrian regime's violent crackdown on peaceful protests but has refrained from calling for an end to the Assad family's four decades of rule, seemingly wary of pressing too hard as it tries to wind down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and faces criticism for being part of the coalition battling Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday that the attacks demonstrated the Syrian president was not serious about reform, but stopped short of calling on him to step down.
"From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy," Mrs. Clinton told reporters at the State Department in a joint news conference with Catherine Ashton, European Union foreign policy chief. "He has failed to deliver on promises he has made, he has sought and accepted aid from the Iranians as to how to repress his own people."
Congressional Republicans have pressed the administration to withdraw Mr. Ford from Syria, an ally of Iran that supports the Islamic militant groups Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.