Syrian security forces dispersed throngs of protesters Monday in a restive southern city calling for an end to emergency laws, but demonstrators regrouped despite a heavy troop deployment, a witness said.
Some eyewitnesses said authorities had fired in the air to scatter demonstrators, while others said tear gas had been used to break up rallies calling for democratic reforms.
At least 61 people have been killed in 10 days of anti-government protests in the city of Deraa, posing the most serious challenge to President Bashar Assad’s rule.
Quoting eyewitnesses, Reuters reported hundreds of people demonstrating in the southern city, while The Associated Press estimated 4,000 had hit the streets to air their discontent with the Assad regime.
Assad has yet to respond to the demonstrations, which have spread to Hama and the port city of Latakia, but Vice President Farouk al- Shara said Assad would give an important speech by Wednesday. Shara said Assad would give a speech in the next two days that would “assure the people,” according to the official news agency SANA.
In Geneva, President Shimon Peres said popular revolutions in the region could give Israel better neighbors if Arab states became more democratic and prosperous, AP reported. Peres said poverty and oppression in the Middle East had fed resentment against Israel, and “the better our neighbors will have it, we shall have better neighbors.”
Peres said changes in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere carried “great hopes and also great dilemmas,” and that Jerusalem was watching protests in Syria especially closely. The week-long series of anti-government rallies in the country “changes the status quo in Syria,” he said.
On Monday, demonstrators in Deraa converged on a main square, chanting, “We want dignity and freedom” and “No to emergency laws,” a witness said. He said security forces fired in the air for several minutes, but protesters returned when they stopped. Security forces have reduced their presence in recent days in the poor, mostly Sunni city, but residents said on Monday they had returned in strength.
“[Security forces] are pointing their machine guns at any gatherings of people in the area near the mosque,” said a trader, referring to the Omari Mosque, which has been a focal point of demonstrations in the city.
Abu Tamam, a Deraa resident whose house overlooks the mosque, said soldiers and central security forces occupied almost every meter outside the mosque.
Another resident said snipers had repositioned on many key buildings.
“No one dares to move,” he said, speaking before Monday’s demonstration began. AP reported Syrian authorities using tear gas on protesters on Monday.
“I think [Assad] is not decided on whether to go on television and try to defuse the situation or choose an even more brutal crackdown route,” a senior diplomat in Damascus said.
Lawyers say emergency law has been used by authorities to ban protests, justify arbitrary arrests and closed courts, and give free rein to the secret police.
“I do not see Assad scrapping emergency law without replacing it with something just as bad,” the diplomat added.
Assad sent in troops to the key port city of Latakia on Saturday, signaling the government’s growing alarm about the ability of security forces to keep order there.
The government has said 12 people were killed in clashes between “armed elements” – whom they blame for the violence – citizens and security forces. Rights activists have said at least six people were killed in two days of clashes.
A leading opposition figure said Monday that Sunni and Alawite religious leaders and civic figures in Latakia had met to try to contain sectarian violence.
“The situation appears calm today after religious and civil society figures intervened,” Aref Dalila said. “I was told buses are running and businesses have reopened in the main university district of Latakia.”
Two Reuters journalists were released by Syrian authorities on Monday, two days after they were detained in Damascus.
Television producer Ayat Basma and cameraman Ezzat Baltaji returned to their home base in Lebanon and said they were well.
State television on Sunday showed deserted streets in Latakia, littered with rubble and broken glass and two burnt-out, gutted buses.
Latakia is inhabited by a potentially volatile mix of Sunni Muslims, Christians and the minority Alawites who constitute Assad’s core support.
AP reported residents taking up weapons and manning their own checkpoints to guard against what they described as unknown gunmen roaming the streets carrying sticks and hunting rifles. It was not clear whether the gunmen were working for the government.
“They are terrorizing people,” a witness said. “They are regular people who are taking up the role of security forces. That’s extremely dangerous.”
Assad has pledged to look into granting greater political and media freedoms, but this has failed to dampen the protest movement, now in its 11th day. In an attempt to placate protesters, authorities have freed 260 mostly Islamist prisoners. They also released political activist Diana Jawabra and 15 others arrested for taking part in a silent protest.
Analysts said Assad had reached a moment of truth.
“Syria is at what is rapidly becoming a defining moment for its leadership,” wrote Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group on Friday. “There are only two options. One involves an immediate and inevitably risky political initiative that might convince the Syrian people that the regime is willing to undertake dramatic change. The other entails escalating repression, which has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end.”