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Syria troops withdraw, but crack down elsewhere

While the Syrian army said Thursday it has begun withdrawing from a city at the heart of the country's uprising, the regime expanded its crackdown elsewhere, deploying soldiers and arresting hundreds ahead of a fresh wave of anti-government protests.
A soldier walks past prone men in civilian clothes, whose hands are apparently tied behind their backs, at a location given as Deraa, Syria in this still unverified image taken from a recent amateur video. (Amateur video/Reuters)

While the Syrian army said Thursday it has begun withdrawing from a city at the heart of the country's uprising, the regime expanded its crackdown elsewhere, deploying soldiers and arresting hundreds ahead of a fresh wave of anti-government protests.

The siege on Daraa — the city where Syria's six-week-old uprising began — lasted 11 days after President Bashar Assad unleashed tanks and snipers to crush dissent there. Syria's state-run TV and news agency said Thursday the military had "carried out its mission in detaining terrorists" and restored calm in Daraa.

Still, an activist who has been giving The Associated Press updates from Daraa cast doubt on the army claim. The activist, who left Daraa early Thursday, said residents were reporting that tanks and troops were still in the city.

The accounts could not be independently confirmed, and telephone calls to Daraa were not going through.

Even as the army said it was pulling out of Daraa, military units were deploying elsewhere, including around the coastal town of Banias that is home to one of Syria's two oil refineries, witnesses said. Four armored personnel carriers, several tanks and a bus carrying soldiers had been spotted, they said.

U.S. and Italy warn of penalties

"The situation is very worrying," a Banias resident said Thursday, asking that his name not be published out of fear for his personal safety. Hundreds of families were fleeing the area in case Banias comes under military siege like Daraa did.

The United States and Italy warned Syria Thursday that it will face penalties and increasing isolation if it does not halt its violent crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Syrian authorities must be pressured to end the violence that has left more than 550 people dead since the uprising began, as security forces cracked down on protests. Scores of soldiers also have been reported killed.

Clinton said the U.S. is looking at boosting sanctions it has already imposed on Syrian leaders. Frattini says Italy would support similar measures by the European Union. They were both speaking at a press conference in Rome.

Syrian activists were planning to take to the streets again on Friday — the main day for protests in the Arab world — for what they are calling a "Day of Defiance."

More than 550 people have been killed since the uprising began as security forces cracked down on protests. Scores of soldiers also have been reported killed.

The mounting death toll — and the siege in Daraa — have only served to embolden protesters who are now demanding nothing less than the downfall of Assad's regime.

At UN headquarters in New York, spokesman Martin Nesirky said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke with Assad by telephone Wednesday and told him "now is the time for bold and decisive measures, for political reforms."

Nesirky said the UN chief also asked that Syria co-operate with the commission set up by the UN Human Rights Council, and "allow in a humanitarian assessment team given the widespread concerns in the international community."

Foreign conspiracy blamed for unrest

Syria blames the unrest on a foreign conspiracy and "terrorist groups" that it says have taken advantage of protests.

Since they descended on Daraa, the troops have cut off electricity and telephone services, and snipers have fired at residents who ventured outdoors. There were also reports that security forces shot at rooftop water tanks, a vital supply of water in the bone-dry region.

About 50 people have been reported killed in Daraa violence over the past 11 days.

The uprising in Syria was sparked by the arrest of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall in the city. Protests spread quickly across the nation of some 23 million people.

Assad inherited power from his father in 2000, and has maintained close ties with Iran and Islamic militant groups such as Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Also Thursday, a human rights activist said Syrian security forces conducted a major raid in a suburb of the capital Damascus detaining more than 200 people.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the raid in Saqba occurred in the early hours of Thursday after authorities cut telecommunications in the area.

Syrian security forces have arrested thousands of people since an uprising began.

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