In a significant concession aimed at stemming a rising tide of rebellion against President Bashar Al-Assad's rule, Syria's government has moved to lift a nearly 50-year-old emergency law.
The move came as protests that have been sweeping the country for more than a month and left at least 200 people dead threatened to reach a new level of intensity after troops fired on demonstrators who occupied a main square in the country's third biggest city, Homs.
In what appeared to be a reaction to the latest upheaval, the cabinet -- appointed by Assad just two weeks ago -- approved legislation that will lift a widely-hated state of emergency law that has been in place since 1963. The law places sweeping restrictions on civil liberties and allows authorities to detain citizens without trial.
The legislation requires Assad's signature, which is considered a formality.
The official SANA news agency reported that the government also abolished the state security court, which handles the trials of political prisoners, and approved a new law allowing the right to peaceful protests.
However, that move appeared to clash with warnings issued by officials that further protests would not be tolerated.
Assad, Syria's president since after inheriting the post on the death of his father, Hafez Al-Assad, who ruled the country for 30 years, announced on April 16 that the emergency law would be repealed soon.
However, that announcement failed to quell the protests in Homs, in which demonstrators at a mass funeral called publicly for the end of his regime.
Shots Into The Crowd
Witnesses said troops opened fire overnight, first with tear gas and then with live ammunition, on a sit-in being staged in Homs, scattering thousands of protesters who had gathered in the city's Clock Square. Syria's Interior Ministry said it was acting against what it described as an "armed insurrection."
"They shot at everything, there was smoke everywhere," an activist in Homs told AP. "I saw people on the ground, some shot in their feet, some in the stomach."
Reports citing witnesses said at least one person had been killed in the incident.
The demonstrators had vowed not to leave the square until the government of President Assad had fallen.
AFP, citing activists, said a crowd of 20,000 had gathered in Clock Square and renamed it Tahrir Square after the area in Cairo that became a focal point for protests in Egypt that eventually toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. Some pitched tents to show they intended to occupy the area for a prolonged period.
The stand-off followed a mass funeral in Homs for at least 12 people who died in the city on April 17 after soldiers fired on crowds demonstrating against the death of a tribal leader who died in custody.
Mourners at the funeral chanted slogans calling for Assad's overthrow. "We are going to heaven in our millions," they shouted, according to Reuters.
The Homs clashes appeared to represent a significant intensification of the unrest that has plagued one of the Middle East's most authoritarian regimes over the past month and which human rights campaigners say has killed at least 200 people.
The Interior Ministry, in a statement aired on state television, said Homs -- about 160 kilometers from the Syrian capital, Damascus -- was one of two cities being terrorized by armed Salafists, a group adhering to a strict form of Sunni Islam that many Arab governments often associate with militant groups like Al-Qaeda.
The official Sana news agency reported that "armed criminal gangs" had killed three army officers in Homs on April 17 and mutilated their bodies.
Pushing Assad To Reform
Leading Syrian officials, including Assad, have also blamed the unrest on "foreign plots."
"The Washington Post" reported on April 17 that the U.S. State Department had funded Syrian opposition groups, including a London-based satellite television channel that transmitted directly into Syria.
However, State Department spokesman Mark Toner denied that this amounted to an attempt to undermine the Assad regime.
"We're not working to undermine that government. What we are trying to do in Syria, through our civil-society support, is to build the kind of democratic institutions, frankly, that we're trying to do in countries around the globe," Toner said.
Citing his own experience in Poland in the 1990s, Toner said that "we worked enormously with civil society and nongovernmental organizations. The difference here is that the Syrian government perceives this kind of assistance as a threat to its existence."
He said aiding opposition groups was aimed at pushing Assad -- who has been described as a "reformer" by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- toward democratic change.
"Trying to promote a transformation to a more democratic process in the society is not undermining necessarily the existing government," Toner added. "What we're trying to do -- and what President Assad is facing right now -- is a push by his very own people to move in a more democratic direction."
with agency reports