Syrian troops arrested 300 people in a Damascus suburb yesterday even as they started to pull back from the protest hub of Daraa after a military lockdown of more than a week.
Activists, meanwhile, vowed a “Day of Defiance” today to press a seven-week-old anti-regime campaign in which 607 people have been killed, according to rights groups, while 8,000 people have been jailed or gone missing.
The sweep in the Damascus suburb of Saqba came despite appeals from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the US and Italy for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to end the deadly clampdown on anti-regime demonstrators.
“Security service agents backed by troops detained more than 300 people in Saqba, among them a number of clerics,” an activist said on condition of anonymity.
He said at least one of those arrested was shot and wounded before being taken away by security forces.
Troops “tore down a banner in the main square, renamed ‘Martyrs’ Square,’ with the photos of those killed attached to it,” the activist said, adding that seven Saqba residents had died since Syria’s protest movement broke out on March 15.
The activist said that more than 2,000 troops and security agents had taken part in the sweep through the suburb and those detained were driven away in waiting coaches.
In southern Syria, troops began withdrawing from the protest center of Daraa, which has been under a complete military lockdown since April 25.
About 350 soldiers in armored personnel carriers and trucks plastered with portraits of Assad drove out of the town at around 10am, a reporter said.
“We have begun our withdrawal after having completed our mission in Daraa,” said General Riad Haddad, director of the military’s political department. “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.
However, 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 Ar-Rastan town, another hotbed of protests, an activist said on Wednesday.
“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 Hamah,” the activist said.
Ar-Rastan residents have toppled a statue of the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, who was succeeded on his death in 2000 by his son, Bashar.
Ban appealed to Assad to end the deadly clampdown.
“The secretary-general reiterated his calls for an immediate end to violence against and mass arrests of peaceful demonstrators,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said on Wednesday.
The UN leader called for a “full and early implementation of all the reform measures” promised by Assad’s government “and emphasized the importance of engaging a genuine inclusive dialogue and a comprehensive reform process.”
The US and Italy also called for an end to the bloodshed.
“The Syrian government must immediately stop the violence and resume a path of dialogue,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said at a joint news conference with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.