08/04/2012 09:20 EDT | Updated 10/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Small protest greets Syrian rider whose father is under EU, US sanctions for supporting Assad

LONDON - A dozen people opposed to the Syrian government staged a small demonstration Saturday to protest the presence at the Olympics of an Syrian equestrian rider whose father is under U.S. sanctions for supporting the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Ahmad Saber Hamsho competed Saturday in the show jumping individual qualifier, producing a clear round in good time on a horse called Wonderboy.

Syria's civil war has intensified in recent weeks as rebels focused on the country's two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. Explosions shook Damascus on Saturday and helicopters circled overhead as rebels appeared to be renewing their offensive in the city.

Hamsho has been quoted in the British media as supporting Assad, telling The Times of London in June that the government was "only protecting people from guys with weapons."

On Saturday, Hamsho said he didn't want to talk about Syrian politics, saying he was representing the country, not anyone in particular in the equestrian ring. He dismissed the dozen protesters outside the gate at Greenwich Park, who handed out leaflets and "Freedom for Syria" stickers, as "totally stupid."

"They should be proud of us athletes who are representing Syria," Hamsho said after his ride. "I represent no one. I represent only Syria."

The U.S. last year placed Hamsho's father, Muhammad Hamsho and his firm Hamsho International Group, under sanctions for supporting the Assad regime. The elder Hamsho is part of the circle within the government that has controlled the Syrian economy for decades, and the sanctions are aimed at breaking that monopoly and isolating Assad.

The elder Hamsho is also under an EU travel ban for his support for Assad.

The 19-year-old Hamsho, who is the youngest competitor among the equestrians at the London games, said the Syrian conflict weighed on him but that he was nevertheless able to concentrate in the ring.

"For sure I feel bad. It's my country," he said. But he said his clean round "gives us and all Syrians positive energy."

The conflict, he said, actually helped him concentrate. "I thank God it made it easier for me because I had more will to do better."

He said he was sad that his father couldn't come to watch him compete due to the travel ban.

"My father gave me all the support to concentrate and do my best here, and he said go there and ride for your country and only your country."

The Hamsho holding company has about 20 subsidiaries ranging from construction, civil engineering, telecommunications and hotels to carpet sales, ice cream production and horse trading.


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