Security Forces, Protesters Clash in Syria

Syrian security forces fired tear gas on thousands of protesters Monday in a restive southern city as President Bashar Assad faced down the most serious threat to his family's four decades of authoritarian rule.

Assad was expected to address the nation as early as Tuesday to try to ease the crisis by lifting a nearly 50-year state of emergency and moving to annul other harsh restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms.

Syria has been rocked by more than a week of demonstrations that began in the drought-parched agricultural city of Daraa and exploded nationwide on Friday, with security forces opening fire on demonstrators in at least six locations. The death toll was at least 61 since March 18, according to Human Rights Watch.

The unrest in Syria, a country of 23.5 million, is a new and highly unpredictable element in the wave of unrest that has swept through the Arab world. Syria has built a close relationship with Iran, allowing the Shiite powerhouse to extend its influence into neighboring Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, where it provides money and weapons to militants.

Instability here also throws into disarray the U.S. push for engagement in Syria, part of Washington's plan to peel Damascus away from its allegiance to Hamas and Hezbollah.

On Monday, an eyewitness in Daraa said up to 4,000 people were protesting there, calling for more political freedoms. He said security forces fired tear gas at the crowd and live ammunition in the air to disperse them.

The witness spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Syrian TV denied troops had fire on the demonstrators.

The eyewitness and another Daraa resident said security forces who had scaled back their presence in the past few days were back in full force, with tanks and army vehicles were surrounding the city.

Monday's protest was near the judicial palace just over a mile (2 kilometers) away from the old city center, where up to 1,200 people are still holding a sit-in the al-Omari mosque -- the epicenter of the protests in Daraa.

Elsewhere in Syria, armed groups appeared to be facing off and threatening an escalation in violence in the country's main port city of Latakia. Residents were taking up weapons and manning their own checkpoints to guard against what they say are unknown gunmen roaming the streets carrying sticks and hunting rifles, witnesses said Monday.

It was not clear whether the gunmen were working for the government.

The scenes in Latakia, a Mediterranean port once known as a summer tourist draw, were a remarkable display of anarchy in what had been one of the Mideast's most tightly controlled countries.

The Latakia resident told AP that soldiers were deployed in the city and around key buildings, including the ruling Baath party headquarters and the Central Bank.

But he said that in nearby villages and entrances to the city, armed groups who appeared to be residents were blocking roads with garbage containers and large rocks and asking people for their ID.

"They are terrorizing people," he said. "They are regular people who are taking up the role of security forces, that's extremely dangerous," he said.

The government has accused armed, foreign elements of working to sow sectarian strife and destabilize the country.

Syria, a predominantly Sunni country ruled by minority Alawites, has a history of suppressing dissent. Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez, crushed a Muslim fundamentalist uprising in the city of Hama 1982, killing thousands.

Latakia is home to a potentially volatile sectarian mix of Sunnis in the urban core and the Assads'

Alawite branch of Shiite Islam in villages on its outskirts, along with small minorities of Christians, ethnic Turks and other groups. The Latakia province has an Alawite majority.

New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the government "to hold to account those responsible for any unlawful shooting on demonstrators."

"Syria's authorities promise reform on TV but meet demonstrators with bullets in the streets," said

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should understand that these demonstrations won't end until it stops shooting at protesters and begins to change its repressive laws and practices."

Syria has placed tight restrictions on media coverage by sealing off certain areas and restricting visas.

On Monday, international news agency Reuters says two of its journalists have been released by Syrian authorities two days after they were detained in Damascus.

Television producer Ayat Basma and cameraman Ezzat Baltaji, both Lebanese nationals, have returned home after being detained incommunicado, the news agency said in a story posted to its website.