WASHINGTON - The United States advised its citizens on Thursday to put off nonessential travel to Syria and urged those in the country to consider leaving because of protests in which 61 people have died.

The department warned US citizens of "the potential for ongoing political and civil unrest" in Syria and specifically cautioned them against travel to the flashpoint city of Deraa and to the port city of Latakia.

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"Demonstrations in those areas have been violently suppressed by Syrian security forces and there are reports of curtailed telecommunications, ongoing disturbances and live gunfire in various neighborhoods," it said.

Inspired by popular revolts elsewhere in the Arab world, the unrest in Syria has presented the gravest challenge to the 11-year rule of President Bashar Assad, who took over after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.

The US travel warning on Syria is the second issued in the last week. On March 24, it advised Americans to avoid areas of demonstrations, noting that they have at times become clashes between security forces and protesters.

The United States has long had a contentious relationship with Syria, which maintains an anti-Israel alliance with Iran and supports the Hezbollah and Hamas.

On Thursday, Assad took steps toward addressing some of the protesters' demands -- including forming a panel to study moves that could lead to the lifting of an emergency law that has been in force for some 50 years.

The moves -- taken one day before planned demonstrations on what activists have called the "Friday of Martyrs" -- seemed unlikely to quickly defuse public discontent in one of the Middle East's most-tightly controlled countries.

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