By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia has started the procedure for withdrawing its recognition of the Syrian leadership under President Bashar al-Assad and for expelling the Syrian ambassador, the Tunisian president said on Saturday.
Soon after the decision was announced, staff at Syria's embassy in the Tunisian capital lowered their national flag over the building, prompting a cheer from about 200 people protesting outside over the Syrian government's crackdown on opponents.
Tunisia's decision to sever ties with Damascus carries moral weight because the north African country's revolution last year started off the "Arab Spring" upheavals which later spread throughout the Middle East, including to Syria.
A message posted on the Facebook page of President Moncef Marzouki said: "Tunisia has announced the launch of procedures for the expulsion of the Syrian ambassador in Tunisia and the withdrawal of all recognition of the regime in power in Damascus."
"The only solution (to the violence in Syria) is the withdrawal of Bashar al-Asssad from power, and the launch of a democratic transition," the message said.
Syria's government says it is fighting a violent, foreign-backed insurgency and that most of the victims are its own troops.
The crowd outside the Syrian embassy in Tunis scrawled slogans on the wall of the building including: "Bashar is an assassin!" and "Get out, Bashar!."
When the flag was lowered, the protesters chanted: "The people want liberty for Syria," adapting a phrase coined during the revolutions last year which ousted entrenched rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
"Since it was Tunisia which sparked the Arab Spring, the country is once again igniting a campaign against another assassin," said one of the protesters, Hanen Sadaoui. "It's time for Bashar to step down."
Tunisia's neighbor Libya, which also ousted its leader last year, already broke with Assad's administration in October when it recognized the opposition Syrian National Council as the legitimate authority in Syria.
The Syrian embassy in Libya has been abandoned for some time, according to a Reuters reporter who visited the building on Saturday morning.
In fellow North African country Morocco, the foreign minister told Reuters that there was no plan at the moment to withdraw recognition for the Syrian government.
"This question is not currently in our plans," said the minister, Saad-Eddine Al-Othmani. "We are following the situation very closely. We will act according to which way events develop."
The head of the Arab Parliament, a committee of parliamentarians from Arab League states, called earlier on Saturday for Arab countries to expel Syria's ambassadors and sever diplomatic relations over Assad's crackdown on protests.
(Additional reporting by Zakia Abdennebi in Rabat and Oliver Holmes in Tripoli; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by)