AMMAN - President Bashar al-Assad, facing the gravest crisis in his 11-year rule, deployed the army for the first time in nearly two weeks of protests after 12 people were killed in the northwest port of Latakia.

Assad, 45, who has been silent since protests started sweeping Syria, is expected to address the nation shortly, officials said, without giving further details.

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Dozens have died in pro-democracy protests in the southern city of Deraa and nearby Sanamein, Latakia, Damascus and other towns over the last week. The government blames armed groups for setting off the bloodshed.

Soldiers took to the streets of Latakia on Saturday night to help secret police and security forces control the port, residents said. The army also beefed up checkpoints around Deraa, where Human Rights Watch says 61 people have died.

"There is a feeling in Latakia that the presence of disciplined troops is necessary to keep order," one resident told Reuters. "We do not want looting." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday the United States deplored the bloodshed in Syria but a Libya-style intervention should not be expected.

The unrest in Syria came to a head after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for scrawling graffiti inspired by pro-democracy protests across the Arab world. People marched, chanting: "The people want the downfall of the regime."

Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in this most tightly controlled of Arab countries.

Assad, a British-educated eye doctor, made a public pledge on Thursday to look into granting greater freedom but this has failed to dampen protests, emboldened by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told Al Jazeera news network the emergency law hated by Syrian reformists for the far-reaching powers it gives to security services will be lifted, but did not give a timetable.

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