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The World

March 26, 2011

Syrian troops storm protest sit-in near Damascus

DAMASCUS, Syria — Security troops stormed a protest sit-in near the capital Damascus, arresting about 200 people in the midnight raid, activists said Saturday, the latest violence in the unrelenting crackdown on protests that have spread to this Mideast country.

The activists said up to 4,000 people were demonstrating in the town of Douma on the outskirts of Damascus when, around midnight Friday, electricity was cut and the protesters came under attack. The activists spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals.

They said troops attacked the protesters with sticks and clubs, injuring several, but those reports could not be independently confirmed. An eyewitness who drove to Douma Saturday said there were no traces of a fight in the area and shops were open.

As calm returned to Syrian cities Saturday, a human rights activist said authorities released 70 political prisoners. The release was an apparent effort to appease the protesters and contain the fallout from a deadly crackdown on demonstrations that have gripped Syria for a week. Groups of detainees have been released earlier in the week as well.

Abdul-Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian Human Rights League, said most of those released on Saturday had been imprisoned at Saidnaya prison in a Damascus suburb where political detainees are usually kept. He said no further details were immediately available and there was no official confirmation.

But authorities also reportedly detained dozens of others during the violence as one of the Middle East's most repressive regimes sought to quell demonstrations that exploded nationwide demanding reform.

The Douma midnight raid capped a day of a relentless government crackdowns on protests which dramatically spread to multiple cities across Syria. The once-unimaginable scenario posed the biggest challenge in decades to Syria's iron-fisted rule.

Security forces opening fire on Friday shot dead more than 15 people in at least six cities and villages, including a suburb of the capital, Damascus, witnesses told The Associated Press. Their accounts could not be independently confirmed.

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