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Syrian activists vow largest protests to date

Thu, 04/21/2011 - 12:45pm
BASSEM MROUE - Associated Press - Associated Press

Ahead of what could turn out to be a decisive day for Syria, protesters took credit Thursday for forcing President Bashar Assad to lift the country's 50-year state of emergency and brushed off his attempts to placate the monthlong uprising against his authoritarian regime.

Activists said they were planning the biggest protests to date Friday against Assad, who inherited power from his late father 11 years ago but has failed to deliver on early promises of sweeping reform. The uprising has posed the biggest challenge to the 40-year ruling dynasty of the Assad family.

The president has been trying to defuse the protests by launching a bloody crackdown along with a series of concessions, most recently lifting emergency laws that gave authorities almost boundless powers of surveillance and arrest.

He also has fulfilled a decades-old demand by granting citizenship to thousands among Syria's long-ostracized Kurdish minority, fired local officials, released detainees and formed a new government.

But many protesters said Assad does not deserve the credit.

"The state of emergency was brought down, not lifted," prominent Syrian activist Suhair Atassi, who was arrested several times in the past, wrote on her Twitter page. "It is a victory as a result of demonstrations, protests and the blood of martyrs who called for Syria's freedom."

Assad ratified the end of emergency rule on Thursday, a formality after his government abolished it two days ago. Although it is a significant overture, critics say many laws that justify imprisonment still exist.

New protests were expected after Muslim prayers Friday, which has become the main day of the week for protests across the Arab world. The movement has crossed a significant threshold in recent days, with increasing numbers now seeking nothing less than the downfall of the regime.

Amnesty International urged the Syrian authorities to show restraint Friday, saying the government's response to the protests will test its sincerity in undertaking reforms.

"If government security forces resort to the same extremely violent tactics they have used over the past month, the consequences could be exceedingly grave," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Syria stands in the middle of the most volatile conflicts in region because of its alliances with militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and with Shiite powerhouse Iran. That has given Damascus a pivotal role in most of the flashpoint issues of the region, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran's widening influence.

If the regime in Syria wobbles, it also throws into disarray the U.S. push for engagement with Damascus, part of Washington's plan to peel the country away from its allegiance to Hamas, Hezbollah and Tehran.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner declined to give his verdict on Assad's future, but said the situation has made it "pretty clear he needs either to do more or allow others to do more."

"He's certainly facing a serious challenge, he and his government, from the Syrian people," Toner told reporters in Washington. "They've expressed their aspirations. They want to see change. So far it appears he has not met those aspirations."

In Berlin, Germany's foreign minister urged the Syrian government to make wide-ranging political reforms and release all political prisoners.

"Courageous political reforms are the only way toward long-term stability in Syria. This is only possible through dialogue, not repression," Guido Westerwelle said.

Within Syria, the mood of the protesters has grown increasingly defiant and emboldened as Assad couples his promises of reform with a relentless crackdown.

Activists say Assad has unleashed his security forces along with shadowy, pro-government thugs known as "shabiha" to brutalize and intimidate them. At least 200 people have been killed since the protests erupted, human rights groups say.

On Thursday, Syria deployed soldiers and armed security agents in plainclothes in the tense central city of Homs, presumably to establish their positions ahead of the rallies. Assad also appointed a new governor for Homs after granting protesters' demands to replace the top local official earlier this month.

Homs has seen violent confrontations as Syrian security forces have cracked down on anti-government protesters in recent weeks. At least 12 protesters were killed over the weekend and several others died Tuesday when security forces fired on hundreds of people staging a sit-in.

Assad sacked the Homs governor April 7 in an overture to the mass protests that have threatened his grip on power. Syria's state news agency said Thursday the president appointed Ghassan Abdul-Al as the new governor.

An eyewitness in Homs said almost all shops in the city were closed for the third straight day Thursday, after activists had called for a general strike.

Some 2,000 people took part in a funeral Wednesday for a person who died in earlier violence.

The eyewitness and other activists told The Associated Press that huge rallies were planned nationwide Friday. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The protesters have dubbed the day "Good Friday," in reference to the Christian holy day that marks the death of Jesus Christ.

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