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Syria Lifts Emergency Law But Fires On Protesters

A cell phone photo taken Monday shows Syrians kneeling in prayer in Clock Square in the city of Homs. A day later, security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition at hundreds of anti-government protesters there. AP hide caption

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A cell phone photo taken Monday shows Syrians kneeling in prayer in Clock Square in the city of Homs. A day later, security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition at hundreds of anti-government protesters there.


Syria's government repealed the country's nearly 50-year-old state of emergency law Tuesday — a key demand of anti-government protesters — even as it issued a stern warning to demonstrators to call off challenges to President Bashar Assad's hard-line rule.

The mixed messages leave ample doubt about whether authorities will ease their increasingly harsh blows against the month-old protests. The interior minister called the protests an armed insurrection carried out by radical islamists and warned that the current uprising will not be tolerated.

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Hours earlier, security forces stormed an occupied square in Syria's third-largest city after a funeral turned into a protest and then an overnight crackdown.

Police fired tear gas and live ammunition to drive out anti-government protesters staging a sit-in in the central city of Homs. Witnesses said at least one person was killed and many others wounded.

"They shot at everything, there was smoke everywhere," an activist in Homs told The Associated Press by telephone, asking that his name not be used because he feared for his personal safety. "I saw people on the ground, some shot in their feet, some in the stomach."

Hundreds of people had gathered at Clock Square following funeral processions by more than 10,000 mourners for some of those killed in clashes Sunday that a rights group said left at least 12 people dead.

They brought mattresses, food and water for an Egypt-style standoff and vowed to stay until Assad is ousted — a brazen escalation of the monthlong uprising against the country's authoritarian regime. An eyewitness said police used loudspeakers to call on protesters to evacuate the area around 2 a.m. Tuesday. Shortly afterward, security forces moved in on the protesters.

"They went up to people's homes, they arrested many," a Homs resident said by telephone. "We heard ambulances all night."

Three people in Homs confirmed the account, all of them asking for anonymity for fear of government reprisals. The witnesses' accounts could not be independently confirmed because Syria has placed tight restrictions on media outlets and expelled foreign journalists.

At least 200 people have been killed over the past month as security forces launched a deadly crackdown on the protest movement, human rights groups say. The government has coupled dry promises of reform with brutal tactics to quell the unrest, using the widely despised security forces and unleashing pro-regime thugs known as shabiha.

Tuesday's show of strength by authorities coupled with the lifting of the much-reviled emergency rule suggested the month-old uprising could be entering a more volatile stage.

"They are basically telling the people, we have fulfilled your demands, so go home and if you don't will break your head. But in reality nothing will change," prominent Syrian writer Yassin Haj Saleh, who spent 16 years in jail for being a member of a pro-democracy group, told the AP by telephone from Beirut.

Syria's state news agency announced the decision to repeal the emergency law and abolish a secret court for political prisoners. The law, which allows detention without cause, was to be replaced by one that recognizes the right to peaceful protest, though the details were vague. The changes need parliament approval, but no objections were expected at its next session planned for May 2.

Assad had told his Cabinet last week to remove the state of emergency — in place since his Baath Party took power in March 1963 — but added that such a move would give protesters no more reason to take to the streets. This could give Assad further pretext to move against any further marches or rallies.

Most of Syria's 23 million people were born or grew up under the state of emergency that also puts strict control on the media, allows eavesdropping on telecommunications and permits arrests without warrants from judicial authorities.

The regime had claimed the reason for the emergency rule is because of the technical state of war with archenemy Israel, but rights groups and others say it was mostly used to as the backbone of the authoritarian system.

The Interior Ministry called on Syrians to "assist" authorities in preserving national security by refraining from taking part in any protests or sit-ins under any pretext. In a statement broadcast on Syrian television, the ministry said all laws will be implemented to safeguard the people's security and the country's stability.

NPR's Deborah Amos reported from Beirut, Lebanon, for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.