Calgary-based Suncor Energy has announced its withdrawal from Syria following imposition of economic sanctions.

The company says it is working through a plan to safely withdraw its foreign staff while retaining its Syrian employees. Suncor, still known in the country by the name Petro-Canada, provides 10 per cent of that country's electricity through its Ebla plant located in the centre of Syria.

"The current situation in Syria is very concerning, and our thoughts are with the Syrian people as we hope for a return to peace as soon as possible," said CEO Rick George on Sunday.

He added that Suncor had always been clear that the company would comply with all relevant sanctions imposed on the country.

Pressure has been mounting on the company to close its operations since new international sanctions were imposed on the regime earlier this month, which triggered a pullout in early December by Shell.

Suncor spokesperson Kelli Stevens told CBC News on Sunday that the company didn't enact an immediate pullout because it needed the time to "put a plan in place" to deal with its foreign and local staff.


Demonstrators near Adlb protest against the regime of Bashar Assad. More than 4,000 prople have been killed in the 9-month uprising. (Reuters)

"[We are] continuing to support the Syrian staff, maintaining them as employees, continuing to pay them," said Stevens, who added the company had to figure out what kind of work the remaining staff would be allowed to do. "A number of security and safety protocols are also in place."

Stevens said the company still believes "employment of local people, development of local capability and support for domestic electricity production could be positive contributions for Syria."

That comment supports what Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird said last week when he remarked that it would hurt ordinary Syrians to have Suncor stop operations.

Although Syria produces less than one per cent of global oil output, it is a big earner for the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Meanwhile, Syrian troops battled army defectors Sunday in clashes that left several military vehicles in flames. The fighting and other violence around the country killed at least five people, activists said.

For the first time, an act of violent protest against Assad's regime spilled across the border into Jordan, where about a dozen Syrians attacked their embassy in the capital, Amman, wounding at least two diplomats and four other consulate employees.

Now in its ninth month, the uprising against Assad has grown increasingly violent in recent months as once-peaceful protesters take up arms and rebel soldiers joining the uprising fight back against the army. The UN says more than 4,000 people have been killed since March.

General strike called

Opposition activists called for a general strike starting Sunday to add to the pressure on the government to stop its bloody crackdown and to release detainees.

Assad has refused to buckle under Arab and international pressure to step down and has shown no signs of easing his crackdown, which has included assaults by the military on unarmed protesters.

Now, fighting between loyalist forces and defectors calling themselves the Free Syrian Army threatens to push the confrontation into civil war.

In one of Sunday's clashes, which took place before dawn in the northwestern town of Kfar Takharim, two of the military's armored vehicles were set ablaze, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Three other vehicles were burned in another clash near the southern village of Busra al-Harir, the group said. Similar battles took place in several other parts of the south, said the Observatory and another activist group called the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC).

The Observatory said two people were killed in the clash with defectors in Kfar Takharim. Two other people who went missing days ago were tortured to death in the central province of Homs, and one person was shot at a checkpoint in the southern province of Daraa, the group said.

The LCC put Sunday's death toll at nine. It is impossible to independently verify either death count as Syria has banned most foreign journalists and prevented local reporters from moving freely.