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Syrian security blocks opposition rallies to mark first anniversary of uprising
BEIRUT (AP) ' Syria's scattered opposition faced a harsh security crackdown Sunday aimed at preventing rallies marking one year since the first nationwide demonstrations of the country's uprising.
Activists said security forces and pro-government thugs swiftly dispersed an anti-regime rally in the capital Damascus and arrested opposition leaders.
They said the deployment of government snipers and tanks, as well as clashes between rebels and regime forces, deterred major demonstrations in some other parts of the country.
The anniversary falls after government offensives against rebel enclaves in the central city of Homs, the northern town of Idlib and the uprising's birthplace in the city of Daraa.
The spotty turnout shows how armed confrontation has largely eclipsed the mass popular demonstrations that originally drove the uprising.
Many activists consider March 18, 2011, the start of the popular uprising seeking to oust authoritarian President Bashar Assad. Thousands took to the streets in cities across Syria on that day, and security forces killed marchers in Daraa.
Since then, Assad's security forces have violently sought to crush all signs of dissent, and protest and international condemnation have spread. Many in the opposition have taken up arms to defend themselves and attack government forces as the increasingly militarized conflict has become one of the bloodiest of the Arab Spring.
The U.N. says more than 8,000 people have been killed.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on an activist network in Syria, said the Syrian army and pro-government thugs fired guns and arrested leaders while breaking up a rally of hundreds of marchers in Damascus.
The Local Coordination Committees said the rally took place in the central Fahameh Square and that rights activist Fayiz Sara was arrested along with at least one other leader, Mohammed Sayid. Neither group reported injuries.
Throughout the uprising, Damascus has remained an Assad stronghold, with many in the country's business class and minority communities standing by the president. Tens of thousands rallied in support of him last week.
On Saturday, three suicide bombings in the city killed 27 people. The government blamed them on the opposition, which it says is made up of "terrorist" groups acting out a foreign conspiracy. Some opposition leaders accused the regime of complicity in the attacks to tarnish the uprising. No group has claimed responsibility.
Activists elsewhere said security forces hampered plans to mark the day, opening fire on marchers in the provinces of Idlib in the north and Deir al-Zour in the east.
Tight security, including army checkpoints on main roads and snipers on government buildings, restricted plans in the southern city of Daraa, considered the birthplace of the uprising.
Nearby activist Adel al-Omari said at the uprising's start, people from the surrounding regions flooded in to participate in protests. Now many fear leaving their villages.
"They have a hard time because there are many more checkpoints in and around the city," he said. "They can't have a big protests, only small quick ones that are spread out. If they get too big or last too long, the army will come and crack down."
A number of armed rebel groups fighting under the banner of the loose-knit Free Syrian Army regularly clash with government forces in the area, and activists posted videos online Sunday of a highway bridge they said had been destroyed by opposition fighters near the village of Khirbet Ghazaleh. The attacks sought to block the army from bringing more tanks and other military reinforcements into the area.
The Syrian government has barred most media from operating in the country, and activist claims could not be independently verified.
International diplomacy has failed to stop the bloodshed.
The U.S. and many Arab and European countries have called on Assad to step down, while Russia and China have protected Syria from censure by the U.N. Security Council. They warn against foreign intervention and fear that an anti-regime resolution could open the door to an international military campaign, as happened against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya last year.
Joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan is sending a team to Damascus Monday for meetings with the regime.
In recent talks with Assad in Syria, Annan pushed for an immediate cease-fire to allow for dialogue among all parties on a political solution.
Syria responded to Annan in a letter seen by The Associated Press on Friday that it is "keen to end violence" but insisted that rebels give up their weapons first.
The Syrian response falls short of U.S. and European demands that regime forces stop fighting first ' and even Russia's insistence that both sides stop fighting simultaneously.
Most leaders in Syria's disorganized opposition reject talks with the regime, saying it has killed too many people for dialogue to be an option.