MEP says he is on fact-finding mission to Damascus and wants to highlight risk of UK supporting opposition fighters
Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National party, has waded into controversy by paying an officially sponsored visit to Damascus as part of a delegation of far-right and nationalist European politicians.
Griffin, an MEP for north-west England, used his Twitter account to publicise selected details of his “fact-finding” trip, calling the Syrian capital a “modern, bustling city”. Aside from “occasional explosions” in the distance, life in Damascus was normal, he tweeted.
Syrian state media reported that suicide bombings in Marja Square in the centre of the city had killed 14 people and injured 31. Griffin later visited the site and commented: “Vile … smells like an abbatoir. Hague wants your taxes to arm these terrorists!”
The BNP spokesman Simon Darby said Griffin was not being paid by the Syrian regime and did not want his presence in the country to be seen as an endorsement of President Bashar al-Assad. But anyone enteringSyria – as Griffin did by road from Lebanon – needs a visa, which would require the approval of the information and foreign ministries.
Other members of his delegation are MEPs and MPs from Belgium, Russia and Poland. The BNP is part of the Alliance of European National Movements in the European parliament. Other members include Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, France’s National Front, Italy’s Tricolour Flame, Sweden’s National Democrats and Belgium’s National Front.
Damascus has the full support of Russia and Iran but in recent months the government has stepped up efforts to win sympathy in western countries to capitalise on waning support for the rebels, fading calls for outside intervention and the rise of extremist jihadi elements such as the Nusra front in the armed opposition.
Assad’s friend Khaled Mahjoub, an influential Syrian-American businessman, has sought to improve government PR by circumventing the slow-moving ministerial bureaucracy to obtain visas for journalists and others. In April the leader of France’s Voltaire network, Thierry Meyssan, author of a bestselling book claiming the 9/11 attacks were an inside job, was in Damascus.
“What he [Griffin] wants is to let people have a proper view of what is going on in Syria, because at the moment all we have is William Hague and his infantile war-mongering,” Darby said. “He wants to ascertain just how many British citizens are fighting out there for the so-called Free Syrian Army and other elements opposed to Assad.
“He is representing the point of view of ordinary British people who don’t want any engagement in the Middle East and its troubles, any more than they wanted to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“He is MEP for the north-west and he is sick and tired of seeing lads from Manchester and Liverpool coming back in body bags or with arms and legs missing because the government got them involved in business that isn’t any concern of ours.”
On Monday Griffin updated his followers on a day in Lebanon, describing Beirut as “less alien than the streets of London”. He praised Hezbollah, the militant Iranian-backed Shia group, who helped the Assad regime recapture the rebel-held city of Qusair last week.