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Agence France Presse

Hundreds Arrested as Troops Exit Syria Protest Hub, Activists Vow 'Day of Defiance'


Syrian protesters hold up loaves of bread as they protest in the northern Syrian port and oil terminal of Banias. Opponents of the regime pledged Wednesday to remain steadfast in their "revolution" (AFP/picture from alternative third party source)

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

Activists, meanwhile, vowed a "Day of Defiance" on Friday 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 on Thursday 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.

And 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 UN chief Ban Ki-moon, the United States and Italy for President Bashar al-Assad to end the deadly crackdown 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 told AFP on condition of anonymity.

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 10 am (0700 GMT), an AFP reporter said.

"We have begun our withdrawal after having completed our mission in Daraa," said General Riad Haddad, the military's political department chief. "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 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 Hama," the activist said.

Ban has appealed to 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 on Wednesday.

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," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said at a joint news conference with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

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

A letter of protest addressed to French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe 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."

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