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Tanks withdrawing from restless Syrian city

From Salma Abdelaziz, CNN
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Syrian FM: No military offensive on Hama
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: 1,399 civilians, 348 security personnel killed in last four months, group says
  • An activist group reports hundreds of arrests in the last 24 hours
  • Tanks are said to be pulling back from Hama
  • Syria has denied that a military campaign was under way against Hama

(CNN) -- Security forces have begun removing tanks from the volatile Syrian city of Hama, a sign that the tensions there could be easing.

Ammar Qurabi, chairman of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria and Omar Habbal, a prominent opposition activist in Hama told CNN that tanks just inside the city are withdrawing.

Hama has been wracked with violence and a general strike this week after a series of peaceful demonstrations, including a huge anti-government demonstration on Friday.

President Bashar al-Assad fired the Hama provincial governor Saturday and security forces moved to the outskirts of the city. A fierce crackdown ensued in the area, with activists and Human Rights Watch reporting many arrests and deaths.

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Qurabi said 34 people were killed Tuesday and Wednesday alone. He and Habbal said the general strike called by activists several days ago continues with businesses, schools, and offices across the city closed.

Avaaz, an international activist group, said more than 700 people have been arrested by regime security forces in Hama over the last 24 hours. It also said water and electricity have been cut off across the city, restricting the ability of doctors to treat wounded protesters.

Residents have created security barriers to protect themselves.

"The city streets are deserted and it is difficult to move through the city because of the checkpoints set up on every corner by residents," Habbal said.

Syria has denied that a military campaign was under way against Hama, even as human rights groups reported deaths, arrests and clashes on the outskirts of the city.

"The Syrian army did not enter and will not enter Hama," a Syrian government official told CNN Wednesday. "The army is present at the city's entrances to facilitate the entry of government employees who live in the Hama countryside and work in government offices in the city; some people in Hama prevented them from entering the city by cutting off roads."

It is unclear whether Hama residents will turn out for nationwide demonstrations on Friday after Muslim prayers.

The theme of the protests is "no dialogue," a reference to the government-sponsored dialogue with the opposition members this weekend. Demonstrators are calling for all opposition leaders to boycott the initiative.

Activists have said that, since mid-March, violence has been started by security personnel who have used brute force to break up peaceful demonstrations, but the Syrian regime has blamed "armed groups" for the bloodshed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 1,399 civilians and 348 security and military forces have died since the unrest began. The group also reported search and detention operations on Thursday in Idlib province.

The city is a sensitive spot for Syrian authorities. In 1982, it was the scene of a brutal military crackdown targeting Sunni Muslims by the Alawite-dominated government of Hafez al-Assad, President Bashar al-Assad's late father. Many thousands were killed, with Human Rights Watch putting the toll at 10,000.

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