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But he said protesters were regrouping for more demonstrations in Daraa and nearby areas Friday. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

In Mr. Assad’s speech before Parliament on Wednesday — his first public comments since the protests began — he said Syria is being subjected to a “major conspiracy.”

He made only a passing reference to the protesters’ calls for change, saying he was in favor of reform, but acknowledged there have been delays. “The question is what reforms do we need,” he said, without offering any specifics.

Social networking sites immediately exploded, with activists calling on Syrians to take to the streets.

Within hours of Mr. Assad’s speech, residents of Latakia said troops opened fire during a protest by about 100 people, although it was not immediately clear whether they were firing in the air or at the protesters. The residents asked that their names not be published for fear of reprisals.

Latakia, which has a potentially volatile mix of different religious groups, already has become a flashpoint for violence that could take on a dangerous sectarian tone in the coming days and weeks.

The anti-government protests and ensuing violence have brought Syria‘s sectarian tensions into the open for the first time in decades, a taboo topic because Syria has a Sunni majority ruled by minority Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam.

Mr. Assad has placed his fellow Alawites into most positions of power in Syria. But he also has used increased economic freedom and prosperity to win the allegiance of the prosperous Sunni Muslim merchant classes, while punishing dissenters with arrest, imprisonment and physical abuse.

Mr. Assad, a British-trained ophthalmologist who inherited power 11 years ago from his father, Hafez, appears to be following the same strategy of other autocratic leaders who scrambled to put down uprisings by offering minor concessions coupled with brutal crackdowns. The formula failed in Tunisia and Egypt, where citizens accepted nothing less than the ouster of the regime.