• Haddad axed after claim Syrians are fleeing imposters in stolen army uniform
  • She also said flood of terrified refugees are visiting 'relatives' in Turkey
  • Troops storm town of Maaret al-Numan as EU prepares sanctions
For weeks she has been ridiculed for putting forward outlandish explanations for Syrian atrocities - all in a perfect cut-glass English accent.

But the Damascus regime has finally ditched its flame-haired spokesman Reem Haddad, otherwise known as 'Comical Sally'.

Haddad was absent from the airwaves yesterday in the wake of a series of interviews in which she has bizarrely claimed residents were fleeing 'armed groups' dressed in stolen army uniform, and the flood of refugees to Syria were doing the equivalent 'visiting the next street'.

She also accused journalists of being swept up in an 'eyewitness phenomenon' when she was faced with requests for independent verification of her 'facts'.

Axed: Reem Haddad said Syrian refugees were fleeing 'armed groups' who had stolen army uniforms

Haddad, the daughter of a Syrian diplomat, has reportedly been moved from her position as director of Syrian TV into a more junior position.

Her TV role had been an attempt to put an acceptable face on a brutal confrontation - but her antics soon earned her the Comical Sally nickname, a reference to Saddam Hussein's spokesman Mohammad Al -Sahaff - known as 'Comical Ali' during the 2003 invasion.

His most famous gaffe was denying American tanks were at Baghdad airport when TV Reports were being broadcast from the runway.

Perhaps Haddad's most bizarre explanation of Syrian repression was her account of Syrian refugees heading for Turkey.

She said: 'A lot of them find it easy to move across because their relatives are there. It's a little bit like having a problem in your street, and your mum lives in the next street, so you go and visit your mum for a bit.'

It came as Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships swept into another northwestern city today, just days after laying siege to it.

The European Union is also preparing to target Syrian businesses with tough economic sanctions.

The Turkish prime minister is also visiting the flood of 9,600 refugees who have crossed the border from Syria since the repression began.

Big demonstrations were expected nationwide as the Syrian people pressed on with the uprising to oust President Bashar Assad.

Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso said large numbers of soldiers entered Maaret al-Numan. It was not immediately clear whether there were any casualties in the operation.

Many of the residents of Maaret al-Numan, a town of 100,000 on the highway linking Damascus with Syria's largest city, Aleppo, have fled after Syrian forces swept through the northwestern province of Idlib last week near the Turkish border.

Omar Idilbi of the Local Coordination Committees, a group that documents anti-government protests, said troops are in full control of the town.

Since anti-government protests erupted in mid-March, inspired by democratic revolutions in autocrat-ruled Tunisia and Egypt, Assad has unleashed the military in region after region to crush street demonstrations.

Human rights activists say more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 have been detained.

The operation in Maaret al-Numan coincided with opposition calls for protests Friday throughout the country naming it "The Day of Saleh al-Ali." Al-Ali was an Alawite leader who led an uprising against French colonial rule in the 20th century.

© ReutersSafe but injured: A wounded Syrian man flashes a V-sign in a medical tent next to a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Yayladagi
The opposition has been giving a name for every Friday since the uprising began 13 weeks ago but using the name of an Alawite leader was designed to show Assad's opponents were not rising up over secular concerns.

The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

Alawite dominance has bred resentment, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity in Syria. But the president now appears to be relying heavily on his Alawite power base, beginning with highly placed Assad relatives, to crush the resistance.

Osso, the rights activists, said troops are now massing around the town of Khan Sheikhon, south of Maaret al-Numan. Earlier this month, any army forces were attacked by gunmen in the area. Two government tanks were damaged in the melee, the activists said.

© ReutersFleeing: Syrian refugees are seen in a camp in the Turkish border town of Boynuegin

A Syrian military official was quoted by SANA, the state-run news agency, as saying the army deployed near Maaret al-Numan and Khan Sheikhon to prevent "armed terrorist organizations" from cutting the highway.

Syrian tanks and the government's most loyal troops have been trying to prevent the uprising from gaining a territorial base for a wider armed rebellion against Assad.

Some 9,000 Syrians have already sought refuge in camps in neighboring Turkey during the latest military crackdown, which authorities said was necessary to rid the area of "armed terrorists." The government blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying religious extremists are behind it - not true reformers.

© ReutersIt is estimated that 9,600 refugees have crossed the border from Syria since the repression began