- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2011

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s government approved lifting the country’s nearly 50-year-old state of emergency Tuesday to meet a key demand of anti-government protesters, but opposition leaders dismissed it as an attempt by President Bashar Assad to claim reforms but maintain his hard-line rule.

The blunt response suggested the month-old uprising could be entering a more volatile stage: protesters now aiming higher to seek Assad’s ouster and his regime warning that the demonstrations must now end.

“We want freedom!” chanted thousands of people in the southern city of Daraa and coastal town of Banias, according to witnesses.

A prominent Syrian writer Yassin Haj Saleh, who spent 16 years in jail for his links to a pro-democracy group, claimed Assad was looking for a “maneuver to gain time” by removing emergency rule, which gives authorities almost boundless powers of surveillance and arrest.

“They are basically telling the people, ‘We have fulfilled your demands, so go home and if you don’t we will break your head,’” he told the Associated Press by telephone from Beirut. “But in reality nothing will change.”

The announcement signaling the end of the much-reviled emergency rule came just hours after a show of strength by authorities. Security forced stormed an occupied square in Syria’s third-largest city. Then officials issued a stern warning on national TV for the protesters to back down.

The ultimatum-style message appeared to show that ending emergency laws will not ease the increasingly harsh blows against opponents. Assad’s regime has labeled the protest movement as an “armed insurrection” and a power grab by Islamic extremists — descriptions that could give authorities the cover to continue the crackdown.

Assad last week had told his cabinet to remove the state of emergency — in place since his Baath Party took power in March 1963 — but added that such a move would give protesters no more reason to take to the streets. This could give Assad further pretext to move against any further marches or rallies.

Syria’s official news agency SANA said the cabinet also approved abolishing the state security court, which handled the trials of political prisoners, and approved a new law allowing the right to stage peaceful protests with the permission of the Interior Ministry. The changes need parliament approval, but no objections are expected at its next session planned for May 2.

“Repealing the emergency law would do little to restrict the power of various security agencies because Syria has other laws that guarantee members of the secret police immunity for virtually any crime committed in the line of duty,” said Mohamad Bazzi, a regional expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Most of Syria’s 23 million people were born or grew up under the state of emergency that, among other things, puts strict control on the media, allows eavesdropping on telecommunications and permits arrests without warrants.

The regime had claimed the reason for emergency rule is because of the technical state of war with archenemy Israel, but rights groups and others say it was mostly used as the backbone of the authoritarian system.

Tuesday’s overtures came shortly after the Interior Ministry issued an ominous warning to the nation to stop taking part in protests or sit-ins. In a statement broadcast on Syrian Television, the ministry said all laws will be implemented to safeguard the people’s security and the country’s stability.

Hours earlier, security forces fired on anti-government protesters staging a sit-in in a square in the central city of Homs, chasing them through the streets for hours.

Witnesses said at least one person was killed and many others wounded.

“They shot at everything, there was smoke everywhere,” an activist in Homs told the AP by telephone, asking that his name not be used because he feared for his personal safety. “I saw people on the ground, some shot in their feet, some in the stomach.”

Hundreds of people had gathered Monday at Clock Square in the center of Homs, bringing mattresses, food and water to the site for an Egypt-style standoff. They vowed to stay until Assad is ousted — a brazen escalation of the monthlong uprising against the country’s authoritarian regime.

At least 200 people have been killed during the past month as security forces launched a deadly crackdown on the protest movement, human rights groups say. The government has coupled dry promises of reform with brutal tactics to quell the unrest, using the widely despised security forces and unleashing pro-regime thugs known as shabiha.

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he welcomed the lifting of the emergency law, but cautioned it was “only one part of a wider package of necessary reforms.”

“The Syrian authorities should do more to ensure the Syrian people experience real political progress without delay,” he said in a statement.

Associated Press writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Raphael G. Satter in London contributed to this report from Cairo.

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