Syria first lady diagnosed with leukaemia: presidency

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's British-born wife Asma, who recovered from breast cancer in 2019, has been diagnosed with leukaemia, the president's office said on Tuesday.

"First Lady Asma al-Assad has been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia," an aggressive cancer of the white blood cells involved in battling infection, it said in a statement.

She will undergo a "specialised treatment protocol" that requires social distancing to avoid infection, the statement said, adding that she will "temporarily withdraw from all direct engagements as part of her treatment plan".

In 2019, Syria's first lady had said she was "totally" free of breast cancer after battling the disease for a year.

Born in Britain in 1975, the former investment banker styled herself as a progressive rights advocate and the modern side of the Assad dynasty before the eruption of the country's brutal civil war in 2011.

Asma often accompanies her husband during his rare official visits abroad, with footage of the presidential couple attending various state-sponsored functions regularly shared in official media.

The first lady was even hailed as "A Rose in the Desert" in a now infamous cover story in US magazine Vogue before plaudits turned to condemnation over her support for her husband's crushing of pro-democracy protests.

She founded the Syria Trust for Development charity, headquartered in Damascus, which is one of the rare such organisations allowed to work in government-held areas.

- 'War profiteer' -

Critics have accused her of consolidating power over Syria's economy, with the Syria Report economic publication saying: "The humanitarian sector in Syria has become increasingly profitable, especially for sanctioned individuals like Asma."

In June 2020, the United States slapped sanctions on the first lady along with many members of the president's family and entourage.

Tehn secretary of state Mike Pompeo charged at the time that Asma, with the support of her husband and her own Akhras family, had "become one of Syria's most notorious war profiteers."

In 2016, The Guardian found that two UN agencies had partnered with Asma's Syria Trust charity, spending a total of $8.5 million.

The first lady, whose father is a cardiologist and whose mother is a diplomat, has two sons and a daughter with Assad.

News of her cancer diagnosis comes as three top security officers are put on trial in absentia by a Paris court for complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes.

It is the first trial in France of Assad government officials and focuses on their alleged role in the deaths of two French Syrian men, Mazzen Dabbagh and his son Patrick, arrested in Damascus in 2013.

The Syrian civil war has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions more since it erupted in 2011 after Assad's government cracked down on protests against his rule.