- Associated Press - Thursday, May 5, 2011

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian army said Thursday it has begun withdrawing from a city at the heart of the country’s uprising, but the regime expanded its crackdown elsewhere by deploying soldiers and arresting hundreds ahead of a fresh wave of anti-government protests.

The siege on Daraa — the city where Syria’s 6-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, which is home to one of Syria’s two oil refineries, witnesses said. Four armored personnel carriers, several tanks and a bus carrying soldiers were spotted, they said.

“The situation is very worrying,” a Banias resident said Thursday, asking that his name not be published out of fear for his personal safety.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, as Daraa did.

Mr. Assad is determined to crush the revolt, which began in mid-March and was inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. It now has become the gravest challenge to the Assad family’s 40-year dynasty.

Mr. Assad has used a combination of brute force, intimidation and promises of reform to quell the unrest, but his attempts have failed so far.

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 served only to embolden protesters, who now are demanding nothing less than the downfall of Mr. Assad’s regime. International condemnation on Mr. Assad’s regime also has been growing.

Also Thursday, the United States and Italy warned Syria 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 said Syria had to know that there would be “consequences for this brutal crackdown.”

Speaking at press conference with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, Mrs. Clinton said the United States is looking at boosting sanctions it has already imposed on Syrian leaders. Mr. Frattini said Italy would support similar measures by the European Union.

Last month, the Obama administration imposed financial penalties on three top Syrian officials, including Mr. Assad’s brother, Maher, as well as Syria’s intelligence agency and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard over the crackdown.

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

Nesirky said the U.N. chief also asked that Syria cooperate with the commission set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council and “allow in a humanitarian assessment team given the widespread concerns in the international community.”

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.

More than 80 people reportedly have been killed in Daraa violence over the past 11 days of the siege, activists said. The number could not be independently confirmed.

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.

Mr. Assad inherited power from his father, Hafez, 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 the Saqba neighborhood occurred in the early hours of Thursday after authorities cut telecommunications in the area.

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

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