THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Syria promises to halt military operation in restive city

Activists allege tanks heading to other protests

By Bassem Mroue
Associated Press / May 5, 2011

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BEIRUT — Syria yesterday promised to end its military operation in the southern city of Daraa, where its forces are besieging the antigovernment protesters that sparked a wave of demonstrations across the authoritarian nation.

The announcement came even as elsewhere across the country, security forces made sweeping arrests to blunt the protest movement’s momentum.

President Bashar Assad, whose army deployed tanks and snipers more than a week ago to crush dissent in Daraa, said in published remarks that the operation would end very soon.

Daraa, near the Jordanian border, has been under siege since April 25 when Assad sent in the military, who cut off electricity and telephone service. Snipers have fired at residents who ventured outdoors, and security forces shot holes in rooftop water tanks — vital for residents of the parched region.

About 50 people have been reported killed in Daraa over the past 10 days.

“The mission of the army units that entered Daraa on the 25th of last month will end very soon,’’ Assad said, according to the private Al Watan newspaper. The paper did not give further details about the plans.

Later yesterday, Syrian state television quoted an unnamed military official as saying the army was still pursuing some armed terrorists and was overseeing the end of its Daraa operation.

The uprising in Daraa was sparked by the arrest of teenagers who scrawled antiregime graffiti on a wall. Protests spread quickly across the nation of some 23 million people.

Activists yesterday said that military reinforcements and tanks were being sent to the central city of Homs. The area is another hotbed of antigovernment protests.

Residents said there was a heavy security presence, and there were many arrests in the city, in a clear effort to intimidate any would-be protesters.

Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, is determined to crush the six-week revolt, the gravest challenge to his family’s 40-year dynasty.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said yesterday that 553 civilians have been killed since the uprising began. Dozens of soldiers have been killed as well, according to the state-run media.

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

Assad has acknowledged the need for reforms, and he has offered an amnesty to Syrians who turn themselves in before May 15 for carrying weapons or undermining national security.

But his overtures have been coupled with a brutal crackdown.

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

Nesirky said the UN chief also asked that in light of international concern, Syria cooperate with the commission set up by the UN Human Rights Council and allow in a humanitarian assessment team.

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