DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian forces opened fire to disperse hundreds of protesters in Deraa calling for an end to emergency laws on Monday, but demonstrators regrouped despite a heavy troop deployment, a witness said.
At least 61 people have been killed in 10 days of anti-government protests in the southern city, posing the most serious challenge to President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
Assad has yet to respond to the demonstrations, which have spread to the port city of Latakia and Hama, but Vice President Farouq al-Shara said Assad would give an important speech in the next two days.
The demonstrators in Deraa converged on a main square chanting: "We want dignity and freedom" and "No to emergency laws," the witness said. He said security forces fired in the air for several minutes, but protesters returned when they stopped.
Security forces have reduced their presence in recent days in the poor, mostly Sunni city, but residents said on Monday they had returned in strength.
"(Security forces) are pointing their machine guns at any gatherings of people in the area near the mosque," said a trader, referring to the Omari Mosque which has been a focal point of demonstrations in the city.
Abu Tamam, a Deraa resident whose house overlooks the mosque, said soldiers and central security forces occupied almost every meter outside the mosque. Another resident said snipers had repositioned on many key buildings.
"No one dares to move," he said, speaking before Monday's demonstration began.
Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in Syria, where the Baath Party has been in power for nearly 50 years but now faces the wave of Arab revolutionary sentiment which has toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
Vice President Shara said Assad would give an important speech in the next two days that would "assure the people," according to the official news agency, SANA.
Assad has been criticized by the West and even close ally Turkey, Syria's northern neighbor, for using violence against peaceful protesters.
At home he is facing growing demands to scrap emergency law, which was imposed by the Baath Party when it took power in a 1963 coup, to release thousands of political prisoners, allow freedom of speech and assembly and curb the free reign the security apparatus has in the country of 22 million.
"I think he is not decided on whether to go on television and try to defuse the situation or choose an even more brutal crackdown route," a senior diplomat in Damascus said.
Lawyers say emergency law has been used by authorities to ban protest, justify arbitrary arrests and closed courts and give free rein to the secret police.
"I do not see Assad scrapping emergency law without replacing it with something just as bad," he added.
Assad, 45, sent in troops to the key port city of Latakia on Saturday, signaling the government's growing alarm about the ability of security forces to keep order there.
The government has said 12 people were killed in clashes between "armed elements" -- whom they blame for the violence -- citizens and security forces. Rights activists have said at least six people had been killed in two days of clashes.
State television showed on Sunday deserted streets in Latakia, littered with rubble and broken glass and two burned-out, gutted buses. Latakia is inhabited by a potentially volatile mix of Sunni Muslims, Christians and the minority Alawites who constitute Assad's core support.
Assad has pledged to look into granting greater political and media freedoms but this has failed to dampen the protest movement now in its 11th day.
In an attempt to placate protesters, authorities have freed 260 mostly Islamist prisoners. They also released political activist Diana Jawabra and 15 others arrested for taking part in a silent protest.
(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Writing by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut)