- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2011

LATAKIA, Syria — Gangs of young men, some armed with swords and hunting rifles, roamed Sunday through the streets of this seaside city, closing alleys with barricades and roughly questioning passers-by in streets scarred by days of anti-government unrest.

The scenes in Latakia, a Mediterranean port once known as a summer tourist draw, were a remarkable display of anarchy in what had been of the Mideast’s most tightly controlled countries.

Syria has been rocked by more than a week of demonstrations that began in the drought-parched southern agricultural city of Daraa and exploded nationwide on Friday, a once-unimaginable development for one of the Mideast’s most repressive governments. Security forces have opened fire on demonstrators in at least six places, leading to dozens of deaths.

President Bashar Assad’s regime has responded by both fatally shooting protesters and promising reform, and a lawmaker told the Associated Press on Sunday that he expected Mr. Assad soon to announce he was lifting a nearly 50-year state of emergency. The timing remained unclear.

A Sunday-evening session of parliament ended with no word of any announcement. State TV showed the session finishing with a moment of silence for those killed in recent days and an address from the parliament speaker about the need for national unity.

A top adviser to Mr. Assad offered the first hint of such reforms in an announcement Thursday, saying the government had begun studying them, but that pledge did not stop protests from erupting in cities across Syria the following day.

Some of the worst violence appears to have taken place in Latakia, with a mix of Sunnis in its urban core; members of Mr. Assad’s Alawite branch of Shiite Islam living in villages on the outskirts; and small minorities of Christians, ethnic Turks and other groups.

Witnesses told the Associated Press that large, religiously mixed crowds took to the steets of Latakia on Friday to express sympathy with protesters in Daraa and demand greater civil liberties and political freedoms and an end to official corruption.

According to the witnesses and footage posted on social networking sites, shooting erupted that protesters blamed on security forces, and unrest erupted that continued until Saturday. Syrian officials said the government had moved the army into Latakia in heavy numbers by early Sunday.

Syrian officials said 12 people had died in Latakia and blamed the deaths on unidentified gunmen firing from rooftops.

An Associated Press photographer saw traces of what appeared to have been a serious battle in Latakia’s main Sheik Daher Square. Two police cars were smashed, and rocks and telephone cables torn from overhead poles were strewn across the streets and sidewalks.

The offices housing SyriaTel, the mobile phone company owned in large part by a cousin of Mr. Assad, was burned.

At one of the city’s two hospitals, officials said they treated 90 wounded people on Friday. The photographer saw many suffering from gunshot wounds to the hands or feet. Others were in critical condition.

Few cars or people were on the streets, and shops were closed. Soldiers patrolled in heavy numbers, stopping virtually anyone seen carrying a bag. They pulled drivers to the side of the road to ask for identification papers and to search their vehicles.

Just before sundown, gangs of young men began roaming the streets, some armed with sticks, swords and knives. Some of the gangs could be seen closing streets and alleys with metal barricades and tires.

Their allegiances could not be immediately determined, but pro-government groups of men in civilian clothes and armed with hunting rifles and other firearms also could be seen pulling over drivers and asking them for identification and the reason for their presence in Latakia.

The Reuters news agency reported that two of its staffers have been missing in Syria since Saturday night, saying Beirut-based producer Ayat Basma and cameraman Ezzat Baltaji had been expected to cross into Lebanon by road and be picked up by a taxi.

Reuters said it had asked for Syrian officials’ help in securing the journalists’ safe return.

Syria’s state of emergency has been in force since Mr. Assad’s Baath party took power on March 8, 1963. The state of emergency lets the government detain suspects without trial and exercise strict control over the media. It also allows civilians to be tried in military courts.

Mr. Assad’s decisions are effectively law, but the state of emergency would have to be canceled formally by a presidential decree requiring approval of the Cabinet. The decree then would be referred to a parliamentary committee for approval before actually going into effect. The next scheduled Cabinet meeting is Tuesday.

Mohammed Habash, a member of parliament, told the AP before the parliamentary session Sunday that it might vote on a section of the constitution that mandates Baath party leadership of the nation. The amendment of the constitution’s Section 8 would open the way for the formation of parties besides the Baath and 11 other closely associated parties known as the National Progressive Front.

There was no immediate word of such a vote after the session.



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