The Syrian government yesterday lifted the country’s 48-year-old state of emergency to try to appease anti-government protesters.
But demonstrations continued as opposition leaders dismissed the historic move as an attempt by President Bashar Assad to make out he was making reforms while maintaining his hardline rule.
In the country’s third largest city, Homs, security officers opened fire on a 5,000-strong crowd occupying a central square yesterday. At least two people were said to have been killed and more than a dozen seriously wounded.
Elsewhere, thousands of people in the southern city of Daraa and coastal town of Banias chanted: ‘We want freedom.’
There were fears last night that the month-old uprising could be entering a more volatile stage, with protesters now aiming to oust Assad while his regime was warning that the demonstrations must now end.
A statement broadcast on state TV called on Syrians to ‘assist’ the authorities in preserving national security by refraining from taking part in any protests.
The Interior Ministry warned all laws will be implemented to safeguard the country’s stability, raising the spectre of an increasingly violent crackdown on the protest movement. ‘Terrorist activities will not be tolerated,’ it declared.
More than 200 Syrians have been killed in the unrest.
Emergency rule has been in place since the Baath Party took power in 1963. Mr Assad became president in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had been in power since 1970.
Mr Assad, 45, has been playing on fears of sectarian warfare as he works to crush any popular support for the uprising.
The authorities claim an ‘armed insurrection by armed groups belonging to Salafist organisations’ is threatening Syria.
Salafism is a strict form of Sunni Islam which many Arab governments equate with militant groups, including Al Qaeda.
The gathering of protestors in Homs followed funeral processions by more than 10,000 mourners for some of those killed in clashes on Sunday that are said to have left at least 12 people dead.
The protesters, including women and children, had set up tents, bringing in mattresses, food and drinks.
A witness said police used loudspeakers to call on protesters to evacuate the area at around 2am. Soon after, security forces moved in, firing tear gas then live ammunition at fleeing protesters.
One demonstrator said by telephone: ‘They shot at everything, there was smoke everywhere. I saw people on the ground, some shot in their feet, some in the stomach.’
The witnesses’ accounts could not be confirmed because Syria has placed tight restrictions on media outlets and expelled foreign journalists.
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