Middle East

Syria's President Assad vows to defeat 'plot'

President Bashar al-Assad has told parliament Syria will defeat those behind a "plot" against his country.

"Syria is a target of a big plot from outside," he said in his first speech since anti-government demonstrations erupted two weeks ago.

Mr Assad said he would continue on the path of reform for Syria - but did not announce the lifting of a state of emergency, as some had predicted.

Later, there were reports of protests and gunfire in the city of Latakia.

Reuters reports that hundreds of people chanting "freedom" had taken to the streets of Latakia, and that troops had fired warning shots in an attempt to get them to disperse.

There were also reports of more protests in the southern city of Deraa, where more than 60 people have been killed in unrest during the last two weeks.

In a speech interrupted several times by pledges of support, Mr Assad told parliament that people had been "duped" to go into the streets.

"Deraa is in the heart of every Syrian," Mr Assad said. It was on the front line of Syria's enemy, Israel, he added.

At a crossroads

Mr Assad said reforms were needed in Syria and leaders must listen to the voice of the people.

We have introduced reforms ourselves, but not because of pressure, the Syrian leader said. "Whoever wants reform, we are here," he said.

"Reform is not seasonal. There are no real hurdles to it."

Mr Assad had been expected to announce a lifting of the state of emergency in place for the past 50 years. He did not do so, but said a draft bill on that - along with one on a multi-party system - was taking too long.

Under the current emergency law, security forces have sweeping powers of arrest and detention.

The Syrian government is reported to be studying the liberalisation of laws on media and political parties as well as anti-corruption measures. An easing of restrictions on civil liberties and political freedom is also expected.

One human rights activist, Aktham Nuaisse, said the country stood "at a crossroads".

"Either the president takes immediate, drastic reform measures, or the country descends into one of several ugly scenarios. If he is willing to lead Syria into a real democratic transformation, he will be met halfway by the Syrian people," he told AP.

Analysts say there are divergent views within the Syrian leadership on handing the crisis - one group favours a crackdown on the dissent while the other prefers dialogue.

The unrest has become the biggest threat to the rule of President Assad, 45, who succeeded his father Hafez on his death in 2000.

The turmoil started after the arrest of several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in the southern city of Deraa, and quickly spread to other provinces.

On Tuesday, the country's cabinet resigned and huge crowds took to the streets to show support for Mr Assad.

A new cabinet - which will have the role of implementing the expected reforms - is expected to be named by the end of the week.

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