BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops stormed a flashpoint suburb of Damascus on Thursday, rounding people up in house-to-house raids, while tens of thousands of backers of President Bashar Assad poured into the streets of several cities in a show of support for his embattled regime.
Just days after pulling out of the suburb of Douma following intense clashes with anti-regime fighters, government troops pushed back in early Thursday from all directions, meeting no resistance, activists said.
"They are entering homes, searching cars and stopping people in the streets to check identity cards," activist and Douma resident Mohammed al-Saeed told The Associated Press, saying the soldiers had lists of wanted people. "There is very little movement in the streets and nobody is allowed to leave or enter Douma."
The suburb has become a tension point in recent months, with large protests against Assad that security forces crushed by force. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 200 people were detained Thursday in Douma.
Just 10 miles (16 kilometers) away in downtown Damascus, thousands of people waved Syrian flags and shouted support for Assad — a sign of the deep divisions over the country's 10-month-old uprising. Similar pro-regime rallies were held in Aleppo in the north, according to state-run media.
The Syrian revolt began last March with largely peaceful anti-government protests, but it has grown increasingly militarized in recent months as frustrated regime opponents and army defectors arm themselves and fight back against government forces.
The government crackdown has killed more than 5,400 people since March, according to estimates from the United Nations.
Assad's regime claims terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy are behind the uprising, not protesters seeking change, and that thousands of security forces have been killed.
After 10 months of violent conflict, the unrest has reached something of a stalemate with many Syrians calling for change but also fearing a descent into civil war as the country's myriad sectarian and religious groups turn on each other.
International pressure on Damascus to end the bloodshed so far has produced few results.
The Arab League has sent observers to the country as part of a plan to the end the crisis, but the mission has been widely criticized for failing to stop the violence. Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia pulled out of the mission Tuesday, asking the U.N. Security Council to intervene because the Syrian government has not halted its crackdown.
Following the withdrawal of the Gulf state monitors, the observer mission is likely to draw to a close soon, despite Syria's extending the mission's mandate on Tuesday for another month, said the risk-analysis company Maplecroft.
"Despite the limited impact of the mission, violence is likely to increase as inspectors are withdrawn," the Britain-based group said. "Division amongst the armed resistance may also lead to a spike in attacks against regime forces as different factions attempt to assert authority through success on the battlefield."
Despite the calls from some Arab states for decisive action from the U.N., that prospect appears unlikely because Russia, a strong Syrian ally, has opposed moves like sanctions.
Violence, meanwhile, has continued unabated in Syria.
The British-based Observatory said a joint army and police force was ambushed Thursday near the town of Khirbet Ghazaleh, killing four members of the security forces and wounding five more.
It added that a sniper shot dead a woman in the central city of Hama, while a stray bullet killed a 14-year-old boy in the southern province of Daraa. The group said three people were also killed in the central province of Homs.
Syria's state-run news agency SANA said an army colonel was shot dead by "an armed terrorist" in front of his home in the central city of Homs.
The Arab League has also called for the establishment of a national unity government within two months, including regime and opposition members and led by a consensus leader.
The unity government would prepare for free parliamentary and presidential elections to be held under Arab and international supervision, according to the League plan.
Under the proposal, Assad would give his vice president full powers to cooperate with the proposed government to enable it to carry out its duties during a transitional period.
Syria has rejected the plan, saying it violates its sovereignty.
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