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Syrian security forces stepped up raids in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, as it sought to prevent the mass protests that have taken place every Friday since unrest began almost two months ago.

Syrian security forces arrested more than 300 people yesterday in Saqba, a Damascus suburb, said Mahmoud Merhi, the head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights. Security forces conducted sweeps in the past two days in other suburbs of the capital including Harasta and Douma, he said. The army began a withdrawal from the southern city of Daraa yesterday, the scene of the most violent crackdown, according to state television.

About 100 tanks are positioned between the outskirts of Damascus and Homs, a city north of the capital, while army units are also deployed around Homs and the coastal city of Banias, Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights, said in a phone interview yesterday. Still, protests are likely to take place today throughout the country except in Daraa, he said.

“This Friday is perhaps more important than in previous weeks,” said Chris Phillips, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. “It will be a test of how successful the regime’s repression policy has been in stifling dissent.”

Syrian forces backed by tanks stormed Daraa on April 25 as part of a crackdown aimed at crushing protests inspired by popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year. The demonstrations have posed the most serious challenge to the 11- year rule of President Bashar Al-Assad.

Death Toll

More than 600 people have been killed in the unrest, which began in mid-March, and the death toll may be higher as many people are missing, Merhi and Qurabi said in telephone interviews yesterday. About 3,000 people have been arrested since April 30, one-third of them in Daraa, Qurabi said.

About 105 army and security personnel have been killed since March 18, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Hundreds of people have been detained and many of them were referred to courts on charges of “harming the prestige of the state and inciting riots,” it said.

Assad has blamed the unrest in Syria on foreign-led conspirators subverting legitimate expressions of popular grievances. He has appointed a new government, ended emergency rule that had been in place since 1963 and pledged reforms, steps that have failed to halt the spread of demonstrations. The Syrian central bank took measures this week aimed at boosting lending and spurring the economy.

‘Security and Calm’

Army units began a gradual withdrawal from Daraa “after completing their mission by detaining terrorist elements and restoring security and calm,” state television said yesterday.

“It would appear that the government has a lot to hide, because it’s refusing to let Daraa residents out or independent observers in,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mailed statement. Syria has detained the family members of some activists to put pressure on them to cease their protests, “acting more like a criminal gang than a legitimate state force,” she said.

There are indications that army snipers remain in Daraa, said Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian writer and activist, in a telephone interview.

“The aim of the mission was to weaken the revolt in Daraa and to some extent that has been achieved given that all the men between the ages of 15 and 40 have been rounded up,” he said. “However, I don’t think it will break the resolve of people in the country.”

sfgate

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