Assad deploys his troops before Friday prayers

Tanks take up positions near urban centers, Damascus suburbs; protests expected to increase "incrementally, not massively."

Syria bread protest Banias 311 R (photo credit: Reuters)
Syria bread protest Banias 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters)
AMMAN - Security forces have moved into central Syria and coastal areas ahead of Friday prayers in a test of will for demonstrators determined to maintain protests against the rule of President Bashar Assad.
In a show of force, tanks have taken up positions near the urban centers of Homs, Rastan and Banias in the past two days.
RELATED:UN chief speaks to Assad, urges end to Syrian violence Analysis: Assad retrenches into Alawite power base Wikileaks reveals varying Israeli views towards Assad
Syrian authorities said on Thursday the army had begun to leave Deraa, but residents described a city still under siege. Troops were also deployed in the Damascus suburbs of Erbin, Saqba, Douma and in the town of Tel, north of the capital.
A senior diplomat said demonstrations after Friday prayers, the only chance Syrians have to gather legally, were expected to increase "incrementally, not massively" in numbers compared with a week ago when tens of thousands took to the streets.
Last week, Assad ordered the army into Deraa, cradle of the uprising that began with demands for greater freedom and an end to corruption and is now pressing for his removal.
Human rights campaigners say security forces killed at least 62 civilians, including 17 in Rastan alone, during those protests.
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
The United States, which had joined a European drive to improve ties with Assad under the Obama administration, called the attack on Deraa "barbaric."
Diplomats said the European Union could reach a preliminary agreement on imposing sanctions on Syria's ruling hierarchy on Friday, but had yet to decide whether Assad should be included.
Aid workers from the Red Cross and Red Crescent on Thursday delivered their first emergency relief supplies to Deraa, a spokesman said.
A convoy of two trucks carrying clean drinking water and two trucks with food and first aid material accompanied the team of 13 experts from the Syrian Red Crescent and International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said.
"We got the green light to go and the visit took place. The goods were delivered," Hassan told Reuters in response to an inquiry. "The team is back in Damascus now."
The neutral humanitarian agency had no immediate information on casualties in Deraa, where demonstrations calling for more freedoms and later for the overthrow of Assad began in March.
Human rights campaigners say army, security forces and gunmen loyal to Assad had killed at least 560 civilians during seven weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations. Thousands of people had been arrested and beaten, including the elderly, women and children, they said.