BEIRUT (AP) – Thousands poured into the streets of the Syrian capital Thursday in a show of support for the regime as soldiers tightened their siege in opposition areas on the one-year anniversary of the country's uprising.
Rallies to commemorate the start of the revolt have been planned in cities across Syria and abroad, but local activists report increased army presence near opposition strongholds in an apparent attempt to quash dissent.
“It is clear that they have tightened the siege because they are worried about what people will do for the anniversary,” said activist Adel al-Omari in the southern province of Daraa. “There are more troops at the checkpoints and they are arresting lots of people.”
Other activists accused the government of forcing people to attend pro-regime demonstrations.
In Damascus, thousands of supporters of President Bashar Assad poured into the streets. The government-orchestrated gatherings were apparently an attempt to overshadow the anniversary.
The march in Damascus was called to protest a “year-old conspiracy” against their country. Assad and his supporters say the uprising is not a popular revolt, but a foreign scheme being carried out by terrorists and gangsters to destroy the country.
Syrians began taking to the streets in mid-March last year to call for political reforms, with the most significant demonstrations erupting on March 18. The protests spread as Assad's security forces violently cracked down. Some in the opposition have since taken up arms to fight government troops.
The U.N. says more than 7,500 people have been killed as the conflict grows increasingly militarized.
In the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising began, activist Raed al-Suleiman said Syrian forces backed by tanks entered early Thursday and rounded up shopkeepers.
“There are random arrests in parts of the city, most of them those who opened their shops,” he said. “They put some of them on buses to take them to a demonstration.”
The Syrian government has prevented most media from operating in the country throughout the uprising, and activist accounts could not be independently verified.
Throughout the uprising, the opposition has been hobbled by disorganization and infighting and the primary opposition groups disagree on what day the uprising began.
Syrians in Paris have organized a rally for Thursday evening in front of City Hall to mark the year anniversary. Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council, is to attend.
Others argue that the uprising started March 18 with the first large protests in a number of Syrian cities, including the southern city of Daraa, where the first protesters were killed by security forces.
Reflecting the declining security situation, Saudi Arabia said late Wednesday it had closed its embassy in Damascus and pulled out its diplomats and staff.
The U.S. and many other European and Arab countries have also closed their embassies.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed reporting from Damascus.