x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Hundreds arrested in Damascus as troops leave Syrian protest hub

Activists promise 'Day of Defiance' on Friday in seven-week-old anti-regime campaign in which 607 people have died, according to human rights groups, while 8,000 people have been jailed or gone missing.

Syrian women shower army troops with rose petals and rice as youths holding up portraits of President Bashar al Assad ride on an army tank pulling out of the southern protest hub of Daraa  today. This picture was taken on a government-sponsored tour.
Syrian women shower army troops with rose petals and rice as youths holding up portraits of President Bashar al Assad ride on an army tank pulling out of the southern protest hub of Daraa today. This picture was taken on a government-sponsored tour.

DAMASCUS // Syrian troops arrested 300 people in a Damascus suburb today even as they pulled back from the protest hub of Daraa after a military lockdown of more than a week.

Activists, meanwhile, promised a "Day of Defiance" tomorrow to press a seven-week-old anti-regime campaign in which 607 people have died, according to human rights groups, while 8,000 people have been jailed or gone missing.

Dozens of armoured vehicles, including tanks, and troops reinforcements were deployed today near the Mediterranean coastal town of Banias, an activist told AFP, contacted by telephone.

"It looks like they are preparing to attack the town, like they did in Daraa," the flashpoint town where the protest movement was born, he said.

In northern Syria, regime supporters used force to disperse a student sit-in at Aleppo University calling for the release of detained colleagues, activists said.

The sweep in the Damascus suburb of Saqba came despite appeals from the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, the United States and Italy for President Bashar al Assad to end the deadly crackdown on anti-regime demonstrators.

An activist told AFP on condition of anonymity: "Security service agents backed by troops detained more than 300 people in Saqba, among them a number of clerics."

He said at least one of those arrested was shot and wounded before being dragged off by security forces.

Troops "tore down a banner in the main square renaming it 'Martyrs' Square,' with photos of those killed attached to it," the activist said, adding that seven Saqba residents had died since Syria's protest movement erupted on March 15.

The activist said more than 2,000 troops and security agents had taken part in the sweep through the suburb and that those detained were driven away in waiting coaches.

In southern Syria, troops began withdrawing from Daraa which has been under a total military lockdown since April 25.

About 350 soldiers in armoured personnel carriers and trucks plastered with portraits of Assad drove out of the town at around 10am, an AFP reporter said.

General Riad Haddad, the military's political department chief, said: "We have begun our withdrawal after having completed our mission in Daraa. The army will have pulled out of Daraa completely by the end of the day."

Dozens of people were killed during military assaults in Daraa, launched with what activists termed "indiscriminate" shelling of the town.

But General Haddad insisted that troops "did not confront the protesters. We continue searching for terrorists hidden in several places. As the army, we never confronted the protesters."

Twenty-five soldiers were killed in Daraa and 177 wounded, he said.

Even as the Daraa pullback began, around 100 tanks and troop transports converged on the town of Ar Rastan, another hotbed of protests, an activist said yesterday.

"Reinforcements continue to mass at the northern entrance to Ar Rastan and, according to our estimates, there must be 100 tanks and troop transports on the highway between Homs and Hama," the activist said.

Mr Ban has appealed to President Assad to end the deadly crackdown.

"The secretary general reiterated his calls for an immediate end to violence against, and mass arrests of, peaceful demonstrators," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said yesterday.

The United States and Italy also called for an end to the bloodshed.

"The Syrian government must immediately stop the violence and resume a path of dialogue," the Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, said at a joint news conference with the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

Between 100 and 150 pro-regime demonstrators held a peaceful protest today outside the French embassy in Damascus against France's condemnation of the crackdown.

A letter of protest addressed to the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, was delivered to the embassy together with a bouquet of flowers, an organiser, Ayman Said Maneh, told AFP.

"Syria will not go down on its knees," chanted the demonstrators, many of them wearing Assad T-shirts.

The Syrian Football Federation, meanwhile, said French coach Claude Le Roy has "amicably" ended his contract as national coach, "saying that he could no longer stay in the country after France called on its citizens to leave Syria."