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State TV says Syrian military starts to leave Daraa

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Report: Syrian military on the move
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Syrian troops gather on edges of Banias, a witness says
  • An activist group says there is little sign of a withdrawal from Daraa
  • Amnesty International says it has received reports of torture and ill treatment
  • Rights group: Pro-reform demonstrators are being held without access to lawyers

(CNN) -- The Syrian military began pulling out of the southwestern town of Daraa on Thursday after a mission to "restore security and calm," state TV reported.

Government troops have been battling pro-reform protesters over the past month and a half. The human rights group Amnesty International says more than 500 people were killed during the clashes and thousands more were rounded up for questioning.

"Scores were arrested and huge amounts of up-to-date weapons and ammunition in several places were confiscated, which helped bring back the sense of safety to the residents of the city," a Syrian military source told the SANA news agency about the Daraa mission.

But the international activist group Avaaz said there was little sign of a Syrian withdrawal from Daraa, and warned that remaining Syrian armored units still pose a threat to demonstrators.

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Syrian soldiers were gathered on the edges of Banias, a city on Syria's northwest coast, according to a witness who spoke to CNN Thursday.

"The army has deployed more than 30 tanks around Banias and 40 armored vehicles," said Anas Al Shaghri, a 23-year-old Syrian economics student. "We are told that the Syrian army will enter the city just like they did in Daraa any minute."

Citizen protesters are posted at checkpoints leading into Banias in an effort to keep the Syrian military out of the city, Al Shaghri said. "We just carry batons and telephones to film whenever the government thugs and armed security forces attack."

The Syrian military warned the protesters that "if we don't pull out the checkpoints the security forces will break into the city," he said.

But Al Shaghri said the protesters "are not terrorists, nor armed. We are simple a people longing for freedom."

At least 16 people have been arrested and detained in the city over the past three days, he said.

The announcement of the pullout from Daraa came a day after Syrian security forces arrested two people outside the University of Damascus as student demonstrators rallied for the release of political detainees, eyewitnesses told CNN. Army convoys and tanks rolled into the capital city, setting up what the witnesses described as a base in the central square.

"The army knows they cannot pressure the economic situation too much in Damascus. Everyone is trying to go about their work, school and their businesses," one eyewitness activist told CNN.

Amnesty International said it has received firsthand reports of torture and other ill treatment from detainees held in Syria, as a wave of arrests of anti-government protesters intensified over the weekend.

The organization said "widespread, arbitrary arrests" had taken place in towns across the country in recent days. At least 499 people were detained Sunday during house-to-house raids in Daraa, a key location for pro-reform protests, the group said, adding that most were being held at unknown locations without access to lawyers or their families.

The rights group also said it had the names of 54 people killed last Friday, which brought to 542 the number of people killed during a month and a half of protests in Syria. Amnesty International stated in a report that the high number of deaths can be attributed to the tactics used by Syrian security forces.

And in a statement released Thursday, Avaaz said more than 400 people -- including members of prominent families who took part in recent protests -- have been rounded up in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani. The group said 38 of those arrested were released Wednesday "and sent home with instructions to spread the word in their communities of their arrest and torture, as a warning to anyone involved in anti-government activism."

Another 300-plus arrests have been made in Sakba, another Damascus suburb, Avaaz said. CNN could not independently corroborate those reports.

Avaaz said more protests are expected across Syria after Friday prayers.

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