Assad deploys his troops before Friday prayers

Thu May 5, 2011 6:47pm EDT
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By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) - Security forces have moved into central Syria and coastal areas ahead of Friday prayers in a test of will for demonstrators determined to maintain protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

In a show of force, tanks have taken up positions near the urban centers of Homs, Rastan and Banias in the past two days.

Last week, Assad ordered the army into Deraa, cradle of the uprising that began with demands for greater freedom and an end to corruption and is now pressing for his removal.

An ultra-loyalist division led by his brother Maher shelled and machine-gunned Deraa's old quarter on Saturday. Syrian authorities said on Thursday the army had begun to leave Deraa, but residents described a city still under siege.

Troops were also deployed in the Damascus suburbs of Erbin, Saqba, Douma and in the town of Tel, north of the capital.

A senior diplomat said demonstrations after Friday prayers, the only chance Syrians have to gather legally, were expected to increase "incrementally, not massively" in numbers compared with a week ago when tens of thousands took to the streets.

Human rights campaigners say security forces killed at least 62 civilians, including 17 in Rastan alone, during those protests.

A doctor who planned to take part in Friday's demonstrations said "indiscriminate killings and inhumane arrests have generated total disgust among the average Syrian."   Continued...

<p>People hold Syrian flags by the side of the road as Syrian military vehicles leave Deraa May 5, 2011 in this still image taken from video. REUTERS/Syrian TV via Reuters TV</p>