Syrian President Bashar Assad replaced his defense minister Monday with the army chief of staff in the midst of a brutal military crackdown on a 5-month-old uprising, the state-run news agency said.
Gen. Ali Habib, the country's defense minister since 2009, was removed from his post because of health problems, the SANA report said, but some analysts said the general was unhappy with the crackdown.
He was replaced by Gen. Dawoud Rajha, a 64-year-old Christian, SANA said. The agency did not say who will succeed Rajha as chief of staff. His deputy is Maj. Gen. Assef Shawkat, who is married to Assad's sister, Bushra.
The army has played a leading role in the bloody crackdown, shelling cities with heavy weapons and tanks.
On Monday, the military renewed its assault on Deir el-Zour, unleashing artillery fire on the eastern town, a day after at least 42 people were killed there. And in the southern city of Daraa, security forces killed at least three people at a funeral, activists said.
The bloodshed 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 recalling their ambassadors.
The international community already has imposed sanctions on the regime _ including on Habib and Rajha _ and demanded an immediate end to the attacks. France, Italy 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.
Some analysts say that Habib, who belongs to Assad's ruling minority Alawite sect, was removed not because he was ill, but because he was uneasy with the crackdown.
Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian scholar at George Washington University, said Habib lost his job because he was a professional officer with no links to the country's dreaded security agencies.
"Habib was not happy with the acts being carried out by the army," said Ziadeh. "Habib is a professional and respected officer in the army and he is a member of the Alawite sect."
Ziadeh said the shake-up indicates there are Alawite officers who are unhappy with the regime. Many senior security and military posts are held by Alawites, while most of the protesters belong to the country's Sunni Muslim majority.
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 to 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 U.S. 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.
Envoys from India, Brazil and South Africa are slated to arrive in Damascus Tuesday to appeal for an end to the violence and to promote democratic reforms.
Despite Damascus' increasing diplomatic isolation, the regime has shown no signs of scaling back its crackdown.
Security forces killed at least three people during a funeral Monday in Daraa, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group said among those killed was prominent activist Maan al-Odat, brother of the well-known Paris-based Syrian human rights activist Haitham Manaa.
Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso said seven people were killed in Daraa. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the discrepancy.
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.
Syrian troops also stormed Maaret al-Numan in the northern province of Idlib at dawn, activists said.
At least 300 people have died in the past week, the bloodiest in the five-month uprising against Assad's authoritarian rule. More than 1,700 people have been killed since March, according to activists and human rights groups.
The central city of Hama had been the focus of the crackdown for most of the week. Reporters were taken on a tour of the government-run Hama National Hospital on Sunday night and shown the remains of 16 people, some decomposing.
On Monday, Syria's state-run news agency SANA, said the army began withdrawing from Hama as life returned to normal in the city. It said the army's operation in the city aimed to "protect civilians."
Condemnation of the Syrian government spread to the Internet, where the hacking group known as Anonymous claimed credit for vandalizing the Syrian military's website. The site quickly became unavailable, but screenshots circulated online showed the group's trademark headless suit and a message addressed to the Syrian people saying that "the world stands with you against the brutal regime."
Assad has shrugged off months of criticism and sanctions, blaming armed gangs for the violence while offering reform measures that have failed to placate the protesters demanding sweeping changes.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Raphael G. Satter in London and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.
Bassem Mroue can be reached at http://twitter.com/bmroue