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Syrian army out in force in violence-hit port city

Assad laying out plan to end state of emergency, but decree requires cabinet approval

LATAKIA, Syria (AP) ―Syria’s army was out in force Sunday in a port city scarred by unrest aimed at symbols of the government, which is struggling to put down an unprecedented nationwide outbreak of protest and dissent.

President Bashar Assad’s regime has responded by both fatally shooting protesters, and promising reform, and a lawmaker told The Associated Press on Sunday that he expected Assad to soon announce that he was lifting a nearly 50-year state of emergency. The timing remained unclear.

Syria has been rocked by more than a week of anti-government demonstrations that began in a drought-parched southern agricultural city and exploded nationwide on Friday, a once-unimaginable development for one of the Mideast’s most repressive governments.

Security forces have opened fire on demonstrators in at least six places, leading to dozens of deaths.

Member of Parliament Mohammed Habash told the AP that lawmakers expected to receive a memo from Assad laying out a plan to end the state of emergency, possibly during a parliament session Sunday evening. He did not provide details.

The state of emergency has been in force since Assad’s Baath party took power on March 8, 1963. It lets the government to detain suspects without trial and exercise strict control over the media.

It also allows civilians to be tried in military courts.

Assad’s decisions are effectively law but the state of emergency would have to be formally canceled by a presidential decree requiring approval of the cabinet. The decree would then be referred to a parliamentary committee for approval before actually going into effect.
Syrians shout slogans for Assad, waving the president’s image in Beirut on Sunday. (Xinhua-Yonhap News)
Syrians shout slogans for Assad, waving the president’s image in Beirut on Sunday. (Xinhua-Yonhap News)

The next scheduled cabinet meeting is Tuesday.

Habash also said parliament might vote Sunday on a section of the constitution that mandates Baath party leadership of the nation. The amendment of the constitution’s section 8 would open the way for the formation of parties besides the Baath and 11 other closely associated parties known as the National Progressive Front.

A presidential adviser offered the first hint of such reforms in an announcement Thursday, saying the government had begun studying them, but that pledge did not stop protests from erupting in cities across Syria the following day.

Some of the worst violence appears to have taken place in Latakia, a Mediterranean coastal city that is a mix of Sunnis in its urban core, members of Assad’s Alawite branch of Shiite Islam living in villages on the outskirts, and small minorities of Christians, ethnic Turks and other groups.

Witnesses told the AP that large, religiously mixed crowds took to the streets of Latakia on Friday to express sympathy with protesters in the southern city of Daraa and demand greater civil liberties and political freedoms and an end to official corruption.

According to the witnesses and footage posted on social networking sites, shooting erupted that protesters blame on security forces, and unrest erupted that continued until Saturday. Syrian officials said the government moved the army into Latakia in heavy numbers by early Sunday.

Syrian officials said 12 people had died in Latakia, and blamed the deaths on unidentified gunmen firing from rooftops.

An AP photographer saw traces of what appeared to have been a serious battle in Latakia’s main Sheik Daher square. Two police cars had been smashed and rocks and telephone cables torn from overhead poles were strewn across the streets and sidewalks.

The offices housing SyriaTel, the mobile phone company owned in large part by a cousin of President Assad, had been burned.

At one of the city’s two hospitals, officials said they had treated 90 wounded people on Friday. The photographer saw many suffering from gunshot wounds to the hands or feet. Others were in critical condition.

Few cars or people were on the streets and shops were closed.

Soldiers patrolled in heavy numbers, stopping virtually anyone seen carrying a bag. They pulled drivers to the side of the road to ask for identification papers and search their vehicles.

Just before sundown, gangs of young men began roaming the streets armed with sticks, swords and knives. Some closed streets and alleys with metal barricades and tires.

Their allegiance could not be immediately determined, but pro-government groups of men in civilian clothes and armed with hunting rifles and other firearms also could be seen pulling over drivers, asking for identification and the purpose of their presence.