Embattled Assad replaces defence minister

Goodbye to General Ali Habib (L)

DAMASCUS - President Bashar al-Assad named a new defence minister Monday as he faced regional isolation after three Gulf states recalled their envoys and Sunni Islam's top authority urged an end to Syria's bloodshed.
The announcement came as activists said security forces shot dead at least eight people including a mother and her two children in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, where 42 people were reported killed Sunday in an army assault.
State television said Assad signed a decree naming General Daood Rajha, 64, the former army chief, to replace General Ali Habib as defence minister.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was to visit Syria on Tuesday with the message that Ankara "has run out of patience" with the ongoing violence, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked Davutoglu to press Syria to "return its military to the barracks."
On the diplomatic front, the recall of ambassadors by Saudi Arabia, the Arab world's Sunni Muslim heavyweight, and neighbours Kuwait and Bahrain marked a major escalation of pressure on Assad.
The regime's repression of Syria's pro-democracy uprising has left at least 2,059 people dead, including almost 400 members of the security forces, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Announcing the recall of his ambassador from Syria, the Saudi king urged Damascus to "stop the killing machine and the bloodshed... before it is too late" and called for "comprehensive and quick reforms."
"The future of Syria lies between two options: either Syria chooses willingly to resort to reason, or faces being swept into deep chaos, God forbid," the king warned.
Fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states Kuwait and Bahrain also recalled their envoys from Damascus. "The military option must be halted," Kuwait's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed al-Sabah told reporters.
The US reaction was that it was "encouraged, heartened" by a tougher stand from Arab countries.
"We are very much encouraged, heartened by the strong statements that we've seen over the weekend by the Arab League as well as by the Gulf Cooperation Council," US State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said.
Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based top Sunni authority, also piled the pressure on the Assad regime, terming the crackdown a "tragedy" that "has gone too far."
It wanted "Syrian leaders to work immediately to end the bloodshed and to respond favourably to the legitimate demands of the Syrian masses," said the grand imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb.
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi urged Syria to launch a "serious dialogue" with protesters who have rallied almost daily since mid-March, urging democratic reforms in a country ruled by Assad's Baath party for nearly 50 years.
And former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri urged the new government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati to denounce the "massacre" taking place in neighbouring Syria, the former power-broker in Lebanon.
The Observatory reported more deaths on Monday in Syria, where seven people were killed including the mother and her two children shot dead as they were fleeing a military assault on Deir Ezzor.
An 18-year-old woman was also shot by a sniper in the city, while an elderly woman was killed in Al-Jura district, the Observatory said, quoting local residents.
It also reported that security forces shot dead three people in the southern protest hub of Deraa as they took part in the funeral of a man who died on Sunday.
It identified one of the victims as Maan Awadat, brother of prominent dissident Haitham Manaa. "He was hit in the head, it was an assassination," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory.
Witnesses and activists on Monday reported tanks and troops entering Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province bordering Turkey and carrying out "a large number of arrests," while tanks also deployed outside the town of Sarakeb.
The website of Syria's defence ministry was offline after being defaced by the Internet vigilante "hacktivist" group Anonymous to protest the crackdown.
Assad on Sunday defended the actions of his security forces saying they were confronting "outlaws" while SANA news agency quoted an official military source as denying charges that tanks were shelling Deir Ezzor.
The European Union is mulling new sanctions against individuals and business linked to the clampdown, EU diplomats said, as Germany warned that Assad would lose legitimacy if his regime kept up the deadly crackdown.
Assad's replacement of the defence minister is his latest in a series of measure since protests broke out in mid-March.
He ordered a new government in April after the former prime minister quit and has sacked several governors, including those of the flashpoint provinces of Hama, Homs and Deir Ezzor.