Beirut: Syria`s defense minister was replaced Monday by the army chief of staff in the midst of a brutal military crackdown on a 5-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad, the state-run news agency said.
The SANA report said Gen. Ali Habib, the country`s defense minister since 2009, was removed because of health problems. Assad appointed Gen. Dawoud Rajha as the new defense minister as part of a shake-up of a number of key posts, SANA said.
The army has played a key role in the crackdown on protesters, along with the security services and armed thugs known as shabiha. On Monday, the military renewed its assault on Deir el-Zour, unleashing artillery fire the eastern town, a day after at least 42 people were killed there.
The intensifying government crackdown has drawn sharp condemnation from abroad, and Arab nations joined the growing international chorus against Assad`s regime Monday, with Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia pulling out their ambassadors.
The international community has imposed sanctions and demanded an immediate end to the attacks. France and Germany renewed their condemnation Monday.
But in a sign of growing outrage, Syria`s Arab neighbors joined the mounting criticism, voicing their concerns about a crackdown that intensified on the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — a time of introspection and piety characterized by a dawn-to-dusk fast.
Late Sunday, Saudi Arabia`s king — whose country does not tolerate dissent and lent its military troops to repress anti-government protests in neighboring Bahrain — said he was recalling his ambassador in Damascus for consultations, and demanded "an end to the killing machine and bloodshed."
"Any sane Arab, Muslim or anyone else knows that this has nothing to do with religion, or ethics or morals; spilling the blood of the innocent for any reasons or pretext leads to no path," King Abdullah said in a statement.
Bahrain, a US ally that hosts the Navy`s 5th Fleet, recalled its ambassador to Syria "for consultation," Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa announced on his official Twitter feed Monday. Bahraini officials couldn`t immediately be reached for further comment.
Bahrain has faced the Gulf`s largest uprisings since the start of the Arab Spring. Its larger Gulf neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia, sent in additional security forces to help Bahraini authorities put down widespread street protests under special emergency powers earlier this year.
Kuwait also recalled its ambassador to Syria, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheik Mohammad Sabah al-Salem Al Sabah said in a brief statement carried by the state news agency KUNA. He said Gulf foreign ministers planned to meet soon to discuss the situation in Syria.
In Deir el-Zour, about 280 miles (450 kilometers) east of the capital Damascus, machine-gun fire and artillery blasts resumed early Monday, according to the Local Coordinating Committees, which help organize the protests and track the uprising.
Deir el-Zour is in an oil-rich but largely impoverished region of Syria known for its well-armed clans and tribes whose ties extend across eastern Syrian and into Iraq. At least 42 people were killed Sunday in a pre-dawn raid, said Abdul-Karim Rihawi, the Damascus-based chief of the Syrian Human Rights League, and Ammar Qurabi, who heads the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.
Syrian troops also stormed Maaret al-Numan in the northern province of Idlib at dawn, activists said.
"Forces entered the city from its eastern side and they are preventing the residents from entering or leaving the city," the LCC said in a statement.
More than 300 people have died in the past week, the bloodiest in the five-month uprising against Assad`s authoritarian rule.
The government crackdown on mostly peaceful, unarmed protesters demanding political reforms and an end to the Assad family`s 40-year rule has left more than 1,700 dead since March, according to activists and human rights groups. Assad`s regime disputes the toll and blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, which at times has brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets.