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Syria's Assad Replaces Defense Minister, Arab Nations Recall Envoys


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (file photo)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (file photo)

Syrian state media say President Bashar al-Assad has replaced his defense minister, as Damascus comes under increasing pressure from its Arab neighbors to stop a deadly crackdown against an opposition uprising.

Mr. Assad appointed the Syrian army chief of staff, General Dawoud Rajha, as the new defense minister Monday. He replaces General Ali Habib, whom Syrian state media say is ill. It is the most significant change to the Syrian government since nationwide protests against Mr. Assad's rule began in March.

Bahrain and Kuwait said Monday they have joined Saudi Arabia in recalling their ambassadors from Damascus for consultations on Syria's use of force against the protesters. Saudi King Abdullah announced the recall of his envoy on Sunday and demanded a stop to what he called Mr. Assad's "killing machine."

The ambassador recalls follow the bloodiest week of the five-month uprising. Rights activists say Syrian troops backed by tanks have killed hundreds of people in the central city of Hama, the eastern town of Deir el-Zour and other areas in recent days.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington is "heartened" by the Arab world's tougher stand on Syria and sees it as a "further sign" of international condemnation of Mr. Assad's actions.

In Cairo, the head of the influential Sunni Islamic teaching institution, Al-Azhar, said Monday the Syrian government must end the bloodshed immediately - calling it a tragedy that has gone too far. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb also called on Syrian leaders to respond to the "legitimate demands" of the people.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi said the 22-nation bloc is not expected to take any drastic measures against Syria, but will engage in what he called "step-by-step persuasion" to resolve the crisis through negotiations.

Syrian activists and residents said government artillery fire resumed Monday in Deir el-Zour, where they say security forces have killed at least 42 people in an assault that began a day earlier. Syria's government denied any assault was underway in the town.

Elsewhere, witnesses and activists say Syrian security forces opened fire on activists attending a funeral of a pro-democracy protester in the southern protest hub of Deraa on Monday. They say three of the mourners were killed, including a prominent dissident, Maan Awadat.

In another development, a group of Internet hackers known as Anonymous defaced the website of Syria's defense ministry Monday, posting a message to the Syrian people that said "The world stands with you against the brutal regime." The ministry's website became inaccessible after the Internet attack.

On Sunday, President Assad defended his violent crackdown on dissidents, saying it is a national duty to deal with what he called "outlaws" who cut off roads and "terrorize" people. Speaking during talks with Lebanon's visiting foreign minister, Mr. Assad also said Syria is on a path to reform.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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