- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 28, 2009

DAMASCUS, SYRIA (AP) - An American language facility in Damascus is reopening its doors following a forced five-month closure, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said Saturday, in the latest sign of improving U.S.-Syrian relations after years of animosity.

The American Language Center was shut by Syrian authorities in November along with an American school and a cultural center following a deadly U.S. raid on a village in the north near the Iraqi border.

U.S. officials have said the Oct. 26 raid targeted a top al-Qaida in Iraq militant. Damascus demanded proof, maintaining instead that eight civilians were killed.

The language and cultural centers as well as the school cater to the small American community in the Syrian capital and other foreign residents.

Embassy spokeswoman Tracy Roberts Pounds told The Associated Press Saturday that they were informed by the Foreign Ministry this week that the center, which is located on embassy grounds, can reopen.

“We consider this a positive step and look forward for more progress in bilateral relations with Syria,” she said.

Ministry officials were not available for comment on Saturday, a weekend in Syria. It was not clear whether the school and the cultural center would be allowed to reopen as well.

The language center was expected to reopen its doors Sunday.

The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Syria and relations plummeted after the February 2005 assassination in neighboring Lebanon of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, for which many blamed Damascus. Syria denies the charge.

Both countries have said lately they wish to improve relations, despite lingering differences, such as Syria’s backing for anti-Israel militants and its alliance with Iran.

President Bashar Assad has said he noted a change in the U.S. tone toward Damascus under President Barack Obama and has welcomed recent overtures.

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