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Gangs of armed young men roam Syrian seaside city

By Zeina Karam

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 27 2011 5:21 p.m. MDT

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

The scenes in Latakia, a Mediterranean port once known as a summmer tourist draw, were a remarkable display of anarchy in what had been one 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, with security forces opening fire on demonstrators in at least six places and killing dozens.

A Damascus-based activist said residents of an impoverished hillside neighborhood of the capital known as Mezah-86 reported that government forces were attacking demonstrators there Sunday night.

The activist said two residents reported hearing gunfire in the area as they spoke to him by phone.

"I heard shouting, screaming, fighting and shooting," he said.

One of the residents reported seeing security forces breaking into the home of at least one person who had attended an anti-government protest earlier in the evening, the activist said.

His account could not be independently confirmed because Syria maintains tight restrictions on journalists and many areas have become unsafe in recent days.

The government has also tried to calm the situation with concessions, and President Bashar Assad is expected to announce Tuesday that he is lifting a nearly 50-year state of emergency and moving to annul other harsh restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms.

Member of Parliament Mohammed Habash told The Associated Press that lawmakers discussed the state of emergency during a Sunday night session and Assad would make an announcement about the issue on Tuesday. He offered no further details.

Ammar Qurabi, an exile in Egypt who heads Syria's National Organization for Human Rights, said there appeared to be divergent views within the Syrian leadership, with one branch that believes in a crackdown and another that believes in dialogue.

He said Assad must address the people and show some transparency as quickly as possible.

"People are asking themselves, where is he? why doesn't he make an appearance?" Qurabi said. "Assad must choose whether he wants to go the way of the Moroccan king, who has pledged to sponsor broad constitutional reforms, or the Gadhafi way. Which is it going to be?"

A top adviser to Assad offered the first hint of reforms in an announcement Thursday, saying the government had begun studying change to the emergency law and other measures. 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, a coastal city that is a mix of Sunnis living in its urban core and members of Assad's minority Alawite branch of Shiite Islam in villages on its outskirts, along with 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 after nightfall Tuesday that protesters blamed 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 the city, and blamed the deaths on unidentified gunmen firing from rooftops.

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