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Syrian army out in force in violence-hit port city

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    Syrian policeman, left, and army soldier, right, look inside the burned court building that was set on fire by Syrian anti-government protesters, in the southern city of Daraa, Syria, Monday March 21, 2011. Mourners chanting "No more fear!" have marched through a Syrian city where anti-government protesters had deadly confrontations with security forces in recent days. The violence in Daraa, a city of about 300,000 near the border with Jordan, was fast becoming a major challenge for President Bashar Assad, who tried to contain the situation by freeing detainees and promising to fire officials responsible for the violence. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

LATAKIA, Syria — Syria’s army was out in force Sunday in a port city scarred by unrest aimed at symbols of the government, which is struggling to put down an unprecedented nationwide outbreak of protest and dissent.

President Bashar Assad’s regime has tried to balance the use of force with promises of reform, and a lawmaker told The Associated Press on Sunday that he expected Assad to soon announce that he was lifting a nearly 50-year state of emergency. The timing remained unclear.

Syria has been rocked by more than a week of anti-government demonstrations that began with protests in a drought-parched southern agricultural city 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.

Member of Parliament Mohammed Habash told the AP that lawmakers expected to receive a memo from Assad laying out a plan to end the state of emergency, possibly during a parliament session Sunday evening. He did not provide details.

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

It also allows civilians to be tried in military courts.

While Assad and his close associates in the Baath party maintain ultimate control of Syrian politics, the state of emergency must be formally lifted by the vote of two thirds of a Syrian cabinet meeting, then referred to parliament for final approval.

The next scheduled cabinet meeting is Tuesday.

Habash also said parliament might vote Sunday on a section of the constitution that allows 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.

A presidential adviser offered the first hint of the reforms in an annoucement Thursday, saying the government had begun studying such changes, but the 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, a Mediterranean coastal city that is a mix of Sunnis in its urban core, members of 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 the southern city of 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 blame on security forces, and unrest erupted that continued until Saturday. Syrian officials said the government 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 had been 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 President Bashar Assad, had been burned.

At one of the city’s two hospitals, officials said they had 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 search their vehicles.

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