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Syrian army quits Hama after 10-day raid

Syrian army withdrew its forces from city of Hama, 10 days after storming the central city to curb the anti-government protests

AFP , Wednesday 10 Aug 2011
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Dozens of Syrian army vehicles packed with soldiers left the flashpoint protest hub of Hama on Wednesday 10 days after storming the central city to fight "armed groups," an AFP correspondent saw.

Forty personnel carriers decked with Syrian flags rolled out of Hama with soldiers chanting slogans praising embattled President Bashar al-Assad, said the journalist who visited the city on a tour organised by the authorities.

"With our blood and our soul we sacrifice ourselves for you, Bashar," some chanted as others recited slogans saying their allegiance rests with "God, Syria, Bashar."

Troops backed by tanks stormed Hama on July 31, on the eve of the start of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, to crush dissent.

Activists said at least 140 people were killed that day, including 100 in Hama, in the bloodiest day since Assad's regime launched its deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests that have swept the country since mid-March.

The authorities on Wednesday escorted some 60 journalists to Hama, where Assad's regime said troops went in to fight "armed terrorist gangs" the president accuses of fuelling the violence in the country.

Journalists were taken to a police station in Al-Hader neighbourhood that was torched by "saboteurs," according to police officer Osama Khalluf.

On July 31 "all police stations were attacked simultaneously by the saboteurs," he said, adding that "17 policemen died."

A high-ranking army officer outside the police station added: "As you can see, there is no armed presence left in Hama.

"The army units have gone back to their barracks after having accomplished their mission, and residents, happy to be rid of the armed gangs who tried to sow discord among the population, have returned home."

The journalists also saw that graffiti that scrawled on walls had been scrubbed off.

Residents blamed the unidentified "saboteurs" for wreaking havoc on Hama and showered the army with praise.

"Calm returned, thanks to the army," said Khadija, a young woman in her 20s, as she drove back into Hama from a nearby village where she said she weathered the storm with her parents and five sisters.

"Before the saboteurs erected barricades in the city, and there was always gunfire," said Khadija.

A man, Fawwaz, echoed her and said: "The army came to protect us."

"Saboteurs came into my neighbourhood (Al-Sawaek) and ransacked homes," he said. "We are all united, us, the army and Bashar," he added.

On Tuesday Assad pledged a relentless battle against "terrorist groups" as world pressure on his regime to stop the crackdown mounted, with Arab states joining the fray and neighbours like Turkey and Iraq piling on the pressure.

Hama, a city with a bloody past, has been at the forefront of the uprising against Assad and his Baath party which has ruled Syria for nearly 50 years.

In 1982, an estimated 20,000 people were killed in Hama when the army put down an Islamist revolt against the rule of Assad's late father, Hafez.

The president replaced the governor of Hama last month after a record 500,000 protesters rallied in the opposition bastion on July 1 calling for the fall of the regime.

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