BEIRUT -- Syrian President Bashar Assad replaced his defense minister yesterday 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, 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, 64, a Christian, SANA said. The agency did not say who succeeds 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.

The military renewed its assault on Deir el-Zour on Monday, 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 yesterday, 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 yesterday.

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.

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