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updated 4/20/2011 5:32:23 PM ET 2011-04-20T21:32:23

Thousands of students demonstrated Wednesday against Syria's authoritarian regime, brushing off President Bashar Assad's sweeping declarations of reform as the country's growing protest movement vowed to stage the biggest rallies to date on Friday.

The monthlong uprising in Syria has posed the biggest challenge to the 40-year ruling dynasty of President Bashar Assad and his father before him. On Tuesday, Syria did away with 50 years of emergency rule — but emboldened and defiant crowds accused Assad of simply trying to buy time while he clings to power.

"We are preparing for a huge demonstration on Friday," said an activist in the southern city of Daraa, where anti-government protests first erupted last month and later spread nationwide.

Prolonged instability in Syria could have serious repercussions well beyond its borders. The closed-off nation punches above its weight in terms of regional influence because of its alliances with militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and with Shiite powerhouse Iran. That has given Damascus a pivotal role in most of the flashpoint issues of the Middle East, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran's widening influence.

Story: Syria to lift decades-old emergency laws

Protesters have vowed to keep up their demonstrations. In recent days, the movement has crossed a significant threshold, with increasing numbers now seeking nothing less than the downfall of the regime.

At least 200 people have been killed as the government cracked down on the protesters.

On Wednesday, 4,000 university students from Daraa and surrounding areas protested near the city's al-Omari Mosque. Activists also said dozens of students protested Wednesday at Aleppo University in the country's north, adding there were confrontations on campus between pro and anti-government students.

The witnesses spoke by telephone on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The regime has coupled its crackdown with a series of concessions, including an end to the state of emergency, which gives authorities almost boundless powers of surveillance and arrest.

Abolishing the reviled laws was once the key demand of the uprising against Assad, a British-trained eye doctor who took power 11 years ago but has failed to fulfill early promises of reform.

A resident of the city of Homs in central Syria also said preparations for Friday protests were under way, but declined to go into details over the phone.

Homs has been tense since clashes between protesters and security forces killed at least 12 people Sunday. On Tuesday, security forces there opened fire with live ammunition and tear gas on hundreds of anti-government demonstrators during a pre-dawn raid that killed several people.

The resident said there was heavy security presence in Homs on Wednesday, with many opting to stay at home.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton rapped the Syrian government for its crackdown on the protests, saying Damascus "must stop the arbitrary arrests, detentions and torture of prisoners, and it must cease the violence."

Britain's Foreign Office on Wednesday said U.K. nationals should consider leaving Syria on commercial flights, after it upgraded warnings about unrest there. In a statement, the ministry said it had changed its advice "in light of the deterioration in the security situation in Syria."

British diplomats had warned that violent clashes are anticipated between local security forces and demonstrators.

Also Wednesday, human rights activists said Syrian authorities arrested an opposition figure at his home during an overnight raid, hours after the government announced an end to emergency rule.

Syrian Human Rights League chief, Abdul-Karim Rihawi, said security agents picked up Mahmoud Issa from his home in the central city of Homs after an interview he gave to Al-Jazeera satellite TV late Tuesday.

He said his "arbitrary arrest is in line with the state of emergency rule" and said he expected him to be released after President Assad signs the decree formally abolishing the emergency rule.

Rights activist Mazen Darwish said the interview Issa gave to Al-Jazeera angered relatives of a Syrian brigadier general who was killed along with his two sons and a nephew Sunday in Homs.

The government says they were gunned down by "armed gangs" that authorities blame for the violence during anti-government protests of the past month.

Darwish said Issa, in the interview, said he didn't know who was behind the killing and called for an investigation, enraging bereaved relatives who reportedly threatened Issa before alerting the police.

Issa, who spent years in prison for his pro-democracy views, was picked up from his home shortly afterward.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner expressed concern about Issa's arrest, noting its timing only a day after Assad's speech promising reform and the repeal of Syria's emergency law.

"This arrest today calls into question the Syrian government's intentions with respect to real reform, and indeed their desire to meet the demands of the Syrian people," Toner told reporters. "Actions speak louder than words."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Forces fire tear gas, ammunition on Syrian protesters

Explainer: Syria: Land of unrest

  • Bassem Tellawi  /  AP
    Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protester waves a Syrian flag as she looks to the crowd in Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday.

    Syrian President Bashar Assad is now facing down the most serious threat to his family's four decades of authoritarian rule in this predominantly Sunni country, which is ruled by minority Alawites.

    In latest developments, Syria's government approved lifting the country's nearly 50-year-old state of emergency to meet a key demand of anti-government protesters, but also issued a stern warning to demonstrators to call off their challenges to Assad's hard-line rule.

    Scores have been killed in towns across the nation as demonstrations have spread, prompting Assad to send the army out on the streets.

    Assad has blamed "conspirators" for an extraordinary wave of dissent against his rule.

    "Syria stands at a crossroads," said Aktham Nuaisse, a leading human rights activist.
    Following are some key issues and facts about Syria.

    (Sources: Reuters, The Associated Press, World Bank, State Department, CIA, www.trust.org)

  • Timeline

    msnbc.com

    Syria has been under emergency law since the Baath Party took power in 1963 and banned all opposition. Here's a timeline of events since the protests started earlier this month.

    April 19
    The government passed a law lifting emergency rule, enforced since the Baath Party took power in 1963 and banned all opposition.

    March 16
    Security forces break up a silent gathering in Marjeh square in Damascus of about 150 protesters who held up pictures of imprisoned relatives and friends.

    The next day human rights group Amnesty International condemns the violent crackdown by security forces. Witnesses told the rights group at least 30 people were arrested.

    March 18
    Security forces kill three protesters in Deraa, residents say, in the most violent response to protests against Syria's ruling elite. The demonstrators were taking part in a peaceful protest demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption in Syria.

    Smaller protests take place in the central city of Homs and the coastal town of Banias.

    March 20
    Crowds set fire to the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party in Deraa, residents say. "No, no to emergency law. We are a people infatuated with freedom!" marchers chant.

    March 21
    In Deraa, hundreds of black-uniformed security forces line the streets but do not confront thousands of mourners marching at the funeral of a protester killed in Deraa. March 22 - Hundreds of people march in Deraa and Nawa, two southern Syrian towns, demanding freedom. It is the fifth straight day of demonstrations challenging the government.

    March 23
    Syrian forces kill six people in an attack on protesters in the Omari mosque complex in Deraa, and later open fire on hundreds of youths marching in solidarity.

    An official statement says later that President Bashar al-Assad has sacked Deraa regional governor Faisal Kalthoum.

    March 24
    Assad orders the formation of a committee to raise living standards and study scrapping the emergency law in place in Syria for the last 48 years, his adviser says.

    March 25
    At least 200 people march in Damascus and there are reports of at least 23 dead around the country, including for the first time in Damascus.

    — In Deraa, thousands march in funerals for some of the dead, chanting "Freedom." Witnesses say protesters haul down a statue of Assad's father, late president Hafez al-Assad, before security forces open fire from buildings.

    — Amnesty International says at least 55 people have been killed in Deraa in the last week.

    — Hundreds of people chant "freedom" in Hama, where in 1982 thousands of people were killed by Syrian security forces in a crackdown on Islamists.

    March 26
    In an attempt to placate protesters, Assad frees 260 prisoners, and 16 more the next day.

    — Twelve people are killed in protests in the town of Latakia. Assad deploys the army there the next day.

    March 27
    The army beefs up its presence in Deraa, focal point of bloody protests across the country.

    — Assad is expected to address the nation shortly, officials say.

    March 28
    Armed forces fire into the air to disperse a pro-democracy protest in Deraa as the crowd chanted "We want dignity and freedom" and "No to emergency laws."

    — Amnesty cites unconfirmed reports as saying 37 more people had been killed since March 25 in protests in Damascus, Latakia, Deraa and elsewhere.

    March 29
    Government resigns. Assad appoints Naji al-Otari, head of the government that stepped down, as the new caretaker prime minister.

    — Thousands of Syrians hold pro-government rallies after two weeks of pro-democracy protests in which at least 60 people have died.

  • Nation glance

    Bassem Tellawi  /  AP
    A rally after Friday prayers outside the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.

    Population: 22 million

    Ethnic groups: Mostly Arabs, with Kurd, Turk and Armenian minorities. Syria also hosts a large population of Palestinian refugees.

    Religion: Mainly Sunni Muslim, but also Alawites, Shia and Ismailites, and minority Christian denominations.

    Capital: Damascus.

    Language: Arabic is the official language. Minority groups also speak their own languages.

    Geography: Syria borders Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan and Israel to the south and Lebanon and the Mediterranean to the west.

  • Economy

    Image: Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protesters
    Hussein Malla  /  AP
    Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protesters outside a taxi widow car in Damascus, Syria.

    Syria had taken measures to lift restrictions on business after four decades of failed Soviet-style economic policies and hoped to attract $44 billion, or 83 percent of its GDP, in private investment over the next five years.

    U.S. sanctions imposed in 2004 over Syria's role in Iraq and its backing for Hezbollah and Hamas have curbed Western investment. Together with a drought in eastern Syria, the sanctions have made the task of raising living standards and finding jobs for the fast growing population even harder.

    Syria's economy will grow by 6 to 7 percent in 2011, up from expected growth of 5 to 6 percent in 2010, according to the central bank Governor Adeeb Mayaleh.

  • Relations

    The unrest in Syria, a strategically important country, could have implications well beyond its borders given its role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.

    Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a potentially destabilizing force in the Middle East. An ally of Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, it has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups.

    But the country has been trying to emerge from years of international isolation. The U.S. recently reached out to Syria in the hopes of drawing it away from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas — although the effort has not yielded much.

    Israel
    Even though Israel and Syria are sworn enemies, many in Israel are fearful that a collapse of Assad's regime might imperil decades of quiet along the shared border.

    "That has been the working assumption in Israel for years: Better the devil you know than the devil you don't," said Eyal Zisser, director of the Middle East Studies department at Tel Aviv University. "It was a regime that had really scrupulously maintained the quiet. And who knows what will happen now — Islamic terror, al-Qaida, chaos?"

Data: Young and restless: Demographics fuel Mideast protests

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