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Supporters of Syrian regime rally in Damascus
Thousands rally in support of Syrian regime to overshadow one-year anniversary of uprising
By The Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) ' Thousands of supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad are rallying in Damascus to protest what they call a year-old conspiracy against their country.

The march is a push to overshadow demonstrations planned Wednesday to mark the first anniversary of the popular uprising against the autocratic regime.

Syrians first took to the streets in mid-March last year to call for political reforms. 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.

Assad has responded to harsh international criticism by blaming the uprising on armed gangs backed by foreign powers.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) ' Saudi Arabia says it has closed its embassy in Damascus and pulled out its diplomats and staff as Syrian President Bashar Assad steps up attacks against the opposition.

The kingdom has become one of the leading Arab supporters of the Syrian rebels and has appealed for international efforts to study ways to provide aid and weapons to anti-Assad forces. The embassy closure was announced late Wednesday on the official Saudi Press Agency.

Saudi Arabia is a main regional rival of Iran, which is a close ally of Assad.

Last month, the Gulf Cooperation Council proposed that all Arab League nations withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus. The GCC includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

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