DAMASCUS, Syria – An American school in Damascus closed its doors and told students to go home Monday after the Syrian government ordered it shut down in response to a deadly U.S. cross-border raid near the Iraqi border.
A voice message on the school's answering machine said the Damascus Community School was closed to comply with the government's decision. Students and teachers were seen leaving the school grounds Monday afternoon.
The closure order came two days after Syria said U.S. troops in four helicopters attacked a building inside Syria near the Iraqi border. Washington hasn't formally acknowledged the raid, but U.S. officials say the target was a top al-Qaida in Iraq figure.
The school and the cultural center, which are linked to the U.S. Embassy, cater to a small American community in the Syrian capital and other foreign residents. The Syrian government had demanded the cultural center close immediately and the school close by Thursday.
The students came to school as usual Monday but said they were told by the school's administration to leave. No reason was immediately given. One student said administrators told him and his classmates to pack up their books leave the building immediately.
Officials at the school declined to speak with The Associated Press.
An official at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus confirmed that the school, which serves elementary through high school students, was closing to comply with the Syrian government's demand it shut its doors after an Oct. 26 U.S. military raid that Damascus says killed eight people. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media.
The embassy also said a cultural center and the American Language Center, both of which are located on the embassy grounds, have been closed until further notice in response to the Syria government's request, according to a statement posted Monday on its Web site.
A foreign teacher who works at the school said Syrian authorities told the school's foreign teachers to leave the country within a week. The teacher spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
The school has 42 full-time and five part-time faculty members, and a majority are American and Canadian, according to the school's Web site.
On Sunday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his country may resort to more "painful" measures if the United States doesn't give an official explanation for the raid. He did not elaborate.
Syria also has threatened to cut off cooperation on Iraqi border security and demanded America apologize and promise not to repeat a deadly cross-border raid into its territory.
Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a destabilizing country in the Middle East, but in recent months Damascus had been trying to change its image and end years of global seclusion.
But American accusations that Syria isn't doing enough to prevent foreign fighters from crossing its borders into Iraq is a sore point in relations. Syria has said it is doing all it can to safeguard its long, porous border.
Syria got support Monday from ally Iran, whose foreign minister met with President Bashar Assad.
Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters in Damascus that the U.S. attack on Syrian territory was meant to "weaken" Syria but achieved the opposite. Syria's state news agency SANA quoted Assad as saying Syria will not be frightened by U.S. threats and provocations.