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Syria ends emergency law after five decades - maybe

BEIRUT — The Syrian government ended a 48-year emergency law Tuesday just hours after its security forces dispersed a sit-in with gunfire and its Interior Ministry announced that anyone protesting could be arrested.

Analysts attempting to make sense of the paradoxical events suggested that the bottom line was that little was likely to change.

"This announcement is carefully worded; it's still about 'studying,'" said Mohja Qahf, an associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas who was born in Damascus and still follows events there. "They're using schizophrenic talk of reform on the one hand while using repression through the other side of the mouth," Qahf said.

The state news agency reported that the cabinet, which was formed days earlier and stacked with loyalists to President Bashar Assad, released a package of bills that also included planned regulations for the right to peacefully protest and the abolition of a security court typically used for expeditious trials of dissidents.

Early Tuesday, military police and security services surrounded protesters in the Syrian city of Homs, where the protesters had occupied the main square. Activists said the police said they had no right to be in the square and to go home to avoid bloodshed.

According to activists, the forces turned their guns on the protesters when warning shots in the air had no effect. Several activists said that four people were killed.

A video on the Internet shows debris strewn throughout the square while a few people huddle on the ground. The audio includes the sound of gunshots ringing in the darkness.

"Our regime resembles someone who has lost his keys and is searching for these keys under the only light it knows: using security solutions for political and social problems," said Yassin Haj Saleh, a dissident writer who spent 16 years in prison.

Protesters apparently tried to take back the square during the day, but security forces stopped them. Another video showed forces stationed around the city, including a man leaning against a tourist bus in plain clothes, wearing a bulletproof vest and holding a machine gun.

Authenticating the source of videos is nearly impossible. Syrians who post the footage online remain anonymous for fear of government retaliation.

Syria has been the scene of protests for nearly a month, starting with an uprising in the southern town of Daraa. Activists said protests also occurred Tuesday in the coastal town Baniyas and at the University of Damascus.

Taking to the streets was unthinkable in Syria just weeks ago. Human rights activists say a few thousand political prisoners are in detention and several thousand more are reported missing. Exact numbers are impossible to pin down because of the regime's secrecy. The Syrian government closely monitors telephones and Internet usage.

"We are in the heart of a difficult struggle to be recognized as a citizen," Saleh said. "I think if we have democratic elections a majority of Syrians are ready to forget the past, but we are a long way from democratic institutions."

Assad, a British-trained ophthalmologist, came to power in 2000 following the death of his father who ruled the country for nearly 30 years. The younger Assad gained popularity in Syria and the Arab world for appearing to take a stand against the West, particularly the United States and Israel. The Obama administration is nervously monitoring the situation in Syria, which shares borders with five strategic U.S. partners: Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.

(Bossone is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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