- - Thursday, March 24, 2011

Syria’s government indicated a willingness to address protesters’ demands Thursday, as demonstrators in Yemen increased their calls for the Arab nation’s longtime ruler to step down immediately.

The Syrian government promised to consider lifting some of the Mideast’s most repressive laws in an effort to stop a weeklong uprising in the southern city of Daraa from spreading.

But the promises were immediately rejected by many activists, who called for demonstrations around the country on Friday in response to a crackdown that protesters say killed dozens of anti-government marchers in Daraa.

“We will not forget the martyrs of Daraa,” a resident told the Associated Press by telephone. “If they think this will silence us, they are wrong.”

The coming days will be a crucial test of the surge of popular discontent that has unseated autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and threatens to push several others from power.

On one side in Syria stands a regime unafraid of using extreme violence to quash internal unrest. In one infamous example, it leveled entire sections of the city of Hama with artillery and bulldozers to put down an uprising by the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 1982.

Facing down the regime is a loosely organized protest movement in the main city of southern Syria’s drought-parched agricultural heartland.

Sheltering in Daraa’s Roman-era old city, the protesters have persisted through seven days of increasing violence by security forces, but have not inspired significant unrest in other parts of the country yet.

President Bashar Assad, a close ally of Iran and its regional proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, appears worried enough to promise increased freedoms for discontented citizens and increased pay and benefits for state workers — a familiar package of incentives offered by other worried Arab regimes in recent weeks.

In Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, the youth groups who began a monthlong uprising said Thursday that they want a new constitution and the dissolution of parliament, local councils and Yemen’s notorious security agencies, in addition to the immediate ouster of the president.

The widening demands appear to reflect the perception that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime has been badly weakened by weeks of unrelenting protests and by the defection to the opposition of a string of powerful officials, including members of the president’s inner circle.

The organizers say they are hoping that several million people will turn out for Friday prayers in public squares and follow them with demonstrators against Mr. Saleh.

The leaders of the Civil Coalition for Peaceful Revolution — an umbrella group for several pro-reform organizations — told a news conference they also wanted to limit future presidents to two 4-year terms in office, and the creation of an interim presidential council of nine civilians to run the country until legislative and presidential elections are held.

The leader of Yemen’s largest tribe sided with Mr. Saleh’s opponents, calling on him to step down immediately and refrain from further violence against protesters.

The decision by the widely respected Sheik Sinan Abu Lohoum, 80, was announced in a statement issued from the United States, where he is receiving medical treatment. It was read to protesters gathered at a central Sanaa square that has become the epicenter of the protests.

From combined dispatches

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