Baird tells Canadians in Syria to 'leave now'
Canadians in Syria are being told to get out now by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who announced a voluntary evacuation on Thursday.
Baird's warning came as the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting to consider a draft resolution on Syria.
Baird's department has been urging Canadians to leave the Middle Eastern nation since October and has now stepped up that encouragement as well as expanded its consular services to help speed up Canadians' departure from the volatile country.
"The time to leave Syria is now," Baird said at a news conference in Ottawa.
There are thought to be about 5,000 Canadians in the Middle East country that has been experiencing ongoing violence since an uprising against President Bashar Assad began this spring.
Sanctions imposed by the Arab League mean commercial air travel will become increasingly difficult and the security situation continues to deteriorate, he said.
"What we're saying to Canadians in Syria is, take the opportunity now while there are commercial options before things deteriorate further," said Baird.
At the United Nations, the Security Council held an emergency meeting Thursday that discussed a Russian draft resolution on Syria, a copy of which was obtained by CBC News. Sources told CBC News that European nations say the draft resolution does not go far enough, because it does not include sanctions or an arms embargo and fails to condemn the Syrian government's crackdown.
Those concerns are expected to be addressed in negotiations over the coming days leading to a vote next week.
Department staff in Ottawa and in Damascus are prepared to provide specialized consular services including assistance with securing travel documents and visas. Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency are expediting visa applications for immediate family members of Canadian citizens who wish to leave with them, and speeding up the screening process for eligible applicants.
The department of foreign affairs has added surge capacity at its Ottawa call centre to handle an increased volume of calls and are proactively contacting Canadians in Syria that have registered with the government. Only about 1,500 Canadians out of the estimated 5,000 in Syria have registered with the Canadians Abroad service.
"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," said Baird.
If Canadians choose to stay in Syria, Baird said his department cannot guarantee the extent to which embassy officials can help Canadians who find themselves in trouble in Syria.
Travel restrictions have been imposed on the diplomats by Syria's government, making it difficult for them to move around the country, he said.
The opposition to Assad has become more organized in recent weeks and an increasing number of people are defecting from his army to join the resistance which are encouraging signs, said Baird.
"Having said that, the escalation of violence and the fact that the tough sanctions by the Arab League will begin to bite, it's the time for Canadians to leave and to leave now while there are options available and while we're able to provide the maximum amount of assistance," Baird said.
He noted that Canada ended up closing the embassy for a time during the uprising in Libya. The children of embassy staff in Damascus have been evacuated but there are no plans to close the embassy at this time, Baird said, adding that the situation is being watched closely on an hourly basis.
Baird said Canada isn't contemplating any military intervention in Syria, and he expressed frustration with the United Nations Security Council.
"If we can't get a condemnation, just a condemnation of the fact that this man has butchered 5,000 of his people it's a very sad day for the United Nations," he said.
UN raises death toll
At least 27 people were killed Thursday by Syrian army defectors in a battle with government forces in the southern part of the country, according to activists who said it was one of the deadliest attacks since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime began nine months ago.
The UN, meanwhile, raised its death toll for the Syrian uprising substantially this week, saying more than 5,000 people have been killed since the start.
Assad's regime is growing more isolated with the mounting international sanctions resulting from its bloody crackdown that has mostly targeted unarmed, peaceful protesters.
Also Thursday, Human Rights Watch 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.
The 88-page report by the New York-based group is based on more than 60 interviews with defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies.
Text of the Russian draft resolution presented to the UN Security Council Thursday and obtained by CBC News:
With files from The Associated Press