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Pro-regime protesters shout slogans and wave a portrait Syrian President Bashar Assad during a demonstration in Damascus on Jan. 11, 2012. (Muzaffar Salman/AP)
Pro-regime protesters shout slogans and wave a portrait Syrian President Bashar Assad during a demonstration in Damascus on Jan. 11, 2012. (Muzaffar Salman/AP)

Last day to get out of Syria, Ottawa warns Canadians Add to ...

The Canadian government is winding down the clock on an extraordinary campaign to convince citizens to leave Syria, dropping any assurance the embassy in Damascus will stay open after Saturday.

In an unprecedented month-long campaign that was stepped up in recent days, Ottawa has taken to Twitter, websites and news releases to tell Canadians in Syria to get passports and get out.

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Even more unusual, they’ve set a Jan. 14 deadline. The subtext: After that, Canada will be on a day-to-day watch to decide whether the embassy will be closed.

On Thursday, Foreign Minister John Baird and junior foreign minister Diane Ablonczy, who is responsible for consular cases, issued a joint statement warning that the so-called “voluntary evacuation” effort, which offered expedited passports and visas to Canadian citizens and their relatives, ends Saturday.

“As the security situation deteriorates, embassy services may be reduced or suspended without warning,” they said.

Fears of escalating violence, already sharp in a country where the United Nations estimates more than 5,000 have been killed since March in a crackdown on opposition protestors, are heightened now.

President Bashar al-Assad appeared at a rally of supporters on Tuesday and vowed to crush “terrorism” with an iron fist, but protests continue, and opposition movements accuse him of pushing the country to civil war.

A Canadian official said they expect security in the country to continue to worsen. Calls for Canada to withdraw its diplomats from Syria in protest always had to be weighed against the need to provide services to citizens trying to get out, they said. There are no plans to close the embassy now, the official said, but after Saturday’s deadline “we’re keeping a constant watch on the security situation.”

The repeated campaign of stark public warnings urging Canadians to leave is an attempt to avoid a repeat of the 2006 scramble to get 13,000 Canadian citizens and relatives out of Lebanon during the war between Israel and Hezbollah forces.

A month ago, when the campaign for a “voluntary evacuation” from was launched, Canadian officials said they believed there were about 5,000 Canadian citizens, most dual citizens. But it was thought many also have spouses or children who are not Canadian citizens, who need visas to travel to Canada.

In their statement, Mr. Baird and Ms. Ablonczy said the government has since assisted “hundreds” of Canadians and relatives get travel documents.

But the passing of the deadline will mean the Canadian embassy in Damascus, where most Syrian-Canadians would get renewed passports or visas for relatives is no longer promising to keep its doors open.

Some, however, raise concerns that an embassy closure could still strand some Canadians or their relatives, who can’t afford a flight or can’t leave right now for other reasons, and Ottawa should still look for ways to help.

“People who have Canadian citizenship understand that when a government tells you to leave, you should leave,” said Faris al Shawaf of the Syrian Canadian Council. “But some people, I believe, can’t just leave.”

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