BEIRUT - Syrian forces opened fire to disperse protesters early in Homs on Tuesday, activists said, the latest city to be swept by the tide of unrest against President Bashar  Assad's authoritarian rule.

By midday on Tuesday they said the center of Homs resembled a ghost town, with shops, markets and schools all closed in the city of around 700,000 people, where 17 protesters were killed on Sunday night.

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An Interior Ministry statement called on Syrians "to avoid taking part in any marches or demonstrations or protests." Gatherings of more than five people are already banned under the emergency law.

Security forces including Assad's irregular "shabbiha" militia "chased people in the streets of Homs until 6 a.m. (0300 GMT)," one activist in the city said. "The streets are empty."

Another said that 25 wounded people were in hospital.

Rights groups say more than 200 people have been killed in the protests which swept across Syria after demonstrations first broke out in the southern city of Deraa a month ago, inspired by the Arab uprisings which toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.

The protests, the first such revolt since an Islamist uprising was ruthlessly put down in 1982, comprise all shades of society, including ordinary Syrians, secularists, leftists, tribals, Islamists and students.

The rallying cry in the protests has been "Freedom, Freedom. God, Syria and Freedom only. Some shouts of Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest) resonated after Friday prayers.

Assad, who has ruled for 11 years since assuming power on the death of his father Hafez Assad, has responded with a combination of limited concessions and fierce crackdowns.

In a sign that authorities would offer no ground to protesters, the Interior Ministry on Monday night described the unrest as an insurrection by "armed groups belonging to Salafist organizations" trying to terrorize the population.

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Salafism is a strict form of Sunni Islam which many Arab governments equate with terror groups like al Qaida. Assad and most of his inner circle are from Syria's minority Alawite community, adherents to an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

The government says Syria is the target of a conspiracy and authorities blame the violence on armed gangs and infiltrators supplied with weapons from Lebanon and Iraq, a charge opposition groups say is unfounded.

State news agency SANA said on Tuesday that an army brigadier and three family members were ambushed and killed on Sunday by "armed criminal groups" in Homs. Two other officers were also killed in the city on the same day, it said.

Assad said on Saturday he would end nearly half a century of emergency rule with legislation that should be in place by next week, but his pledge did little to appease protesters calling for political freedoms.

Dozens of medical students demonstrated at Damascus University's college of medicine on Tuesday chanting "Stop the massacres. Syria is free. Syria is dignity", two rights campaigners in contact with the students said. They said security forces beat the students to break up the protest.

In Deraa, where the protests first broke out and which has seen most bloodshed, residents said on Tuesday that security forces who stayed off the streets in recent days were being reinforced, possibly ahead of a move to reassert full control over the restive Sunni Muslim town.


No independent media is allowed into Homs or other cities witnessing unprecedented pro-democracy demonstrations. Several international journalists have been expelled or arrested.

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