Damascus: Syrian forces opened fire to disperse hundreds of protesters in Deraa calling for an end to emergency laws on Monday, but demonstrators regrouped despite a heavy troop deployment, a witness said.
At least 61 people have been killed in 10 days of anti-government protests in the southern city, posing the most serious challenge to President Bashar al-Assad`s rule.
Assad has yet to respond to the demonstrations, which have spread to the port city of Latakia and Hama, but Vice President Farouq al-Shara said Assad would announce important decisions in the next 48 hours.
The demonstrators in Deraa had converged on a main square chanting: "We want dignity and freedom" and "No to emergency laws", the witness said. He said security forces fired in the air for several minutes, but protesters returned when they stopped.
Security forces had in recent days reduced their presence in the poor, mostly Sunni city, but residents said on Monday they had returned in strength.
"(Security forces) are pointing their machine guns at any gatherings of people in the area near the mosque," said a trader, referring to the Omari Mosque which has been a focal point of demonstrations in the city.
Abu Tamam, a Deraa resident whose house overlooks the mosque, said soldiers and central security forces had a presence "almost every meter". Another resident from the Jawabra tribe said snipers had repositioned on many key buildings.
"No one dares to move," he said, speaking before Monday`s demonstration began.
Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in Syria, where the Baath Party has been in power for nearly 50 years but now faces the wave of Arab revolutionary sentiment which has toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
Vice President Shara said Assad would announce important decisions that will "please the Syrian people" in the next two days, according to Lebanese Hezbollah`s al-Manar television. Syria has close links to Shi`ite Hezbollah and Shi`ite Iran.
Assad, 45, sent in troops to the key port city of Latakia on Saturday, signaling the government`s growing alarm about the ability of security forces to keep order there.
The government has said 12 people were killed in clashes between "armed elements" -- whom they blame for the violence -- citizens and security forces. Rights activists have said at least six people had been killed in two days of clashes.
State television showed on Sunday deserted streets in Latakia, littered with rubble and broken glass and two burned-out, gutted buses. Latakia is inhabited by a potentially volatile mix of Sunni Muslims, Christians and the minority Alawites who constitute Assad`s core support.
Assad has pledged to look into granting greater political and media freedoms but this has failed to dampen the protest movement now in its 11th day.
In an attempt to placate protesters, authorities have freed 260 mostly Islamist prisoners. They also released political activist Diana Jawabra and 15 others arrested for taking part in a silent protest.