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Syrian Troops, Tanks Ease Grip on Defiant Border Town

Syrian army soldiers reinforce the village of Arida near Talkalakh opposite the Lebanon-Syria border, May 19, 2011

Witnesses say Syrian troops and tanks have started pulling out of a town near the Lebanese border, one of the latest enclaves to join in a two-month old anti-government uprising.

The witnesses said armored vehicles began leaving Talkalakh Thursday, along with buses filled with troops.

Syrian forces first moved into Talkalakh and the nearby village of Arida Saturday after pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets in defiance of President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian rights groups say security forces have killed at least 27 people since the start of the crackdown on Talkalakh. The sounds of gunfire and shelling continued to ring out Thursday, right up until the withdrawal began.

Also Thursday, Syria denounced the latest U.S. sanctions, dismissing them as an effort to serve "Israeli interests."

A statement published by the state news agency (SANA) also said the sanctions will not affect Syria's determination to achieve "comprehensive" reforms.

The United States imposed sanctions on Assad and six of his aides Wednesday, saying it is holding them personally accountable for deadly attacks by Syrian security forces on opposition protesters. Washington also called on the Syrian president to lead a transition to democracy or leave power.

The sanctions include a freeze on U.S.-based assets of President Assad and the other officials and a ban on American citizens and companies from doing business with them. It is not clear what assets will be blocked. The European Union has said it is considering toughening its own sanctions on Syria to include measures against Assad.

Syrian rights activists say more than 850 civilians have been killed across the country since mid-March, when protesters began calling for democratic reforms and Assad's ouster. Authorities have arrested at least 7,000 people as part of the crackdown.

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

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