DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Syrians held pro-government rallies on Tuesday as President Bashar al-Assad was expected to address the nation after two weeks of democracy protests in which at least 60 people have been killed.
Assad, who has been facing the gravest challenge to his 11-year rule after protests in the south spread to many parts of the country, could announce a lifting of Syria's decades-old emergency laws.
Protesters at first had restricted their demands to more freedom, but incensed by security forces' crackdown on them, especially in Deraa where protests first erupted, they have been calling for the "downfall of the regime."
The calls echo those during the uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and also have motivated the rebels fighting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Syrian state television showed people in the Syrian capital Damascus, Aleppo and Hasaka, waving pictures of Assad and chanting "God, Syria, Bashar."
"Breaking News: the conspiracy has failed" declared one banner, echoing government accusations that foreign elements and armed gangs were behind the unrest.
"With our blood and our souls we protect our national unity," another said.
Employees and members of unions controlled by Assad's Baath Party, which has been in power for nearly 50 years, said they had been ordered to attend the rallies, where there was a heavy presence of security police.
All gatherings and demonstrations are banned in Syria, other than those sponsored by the government.
Vice President Farouq al-Shara said on Monday the 45-year-old president would give a speech in the next 48 hours that would "assure the people."
Presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban has said Assad had taken the decision to lift emergency law, but gave no timetable. Arab media reports said Assad was likely to sack the current cabinet.
However Syrian officials, rights activists and diplomats doubt Assad, who oversaw the crushing of a violent uprising against Kurds in the north in 2004, would completely abolish emergency laws without replacing them with similar legislation.
Emergency laws have been used since 1963 to stifle political opposition, justify arbitrary arrest and give free rein to a pervasive security apparatus.
Protesters want political prisoners freed, and to know the fate of tens of thousands who disappeared in the 1980s.
Last week Assad made a pledge to study ending emergency law, consider drafting laws on greater political and media freedom, and raise living standards, but increasingly emboldened protesters have not been mollified.
In Deraa, a southern city that has been a flashpoint of the protests, demonstrators destroyed a statue of Assad's father late President Hafez al-Assad, remembered for his intolerance of dissent. In 1982 he sent in troops to quell an armed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, killing thousands and razing part of the conservative city of Hama to the ground.
Even Hama has seen protests and Assad deployed the army in the main port city of Latakia, scene of clashes in which officials said at least 12 people had been killed last week.
Assad's crackdown on protests the likes of which would have been unthinkable two months ago in this tightly-controlled country has drawn international condemnation and pressure to speed up political reforms.
Cyprus's foreign minister Markos Kyprianou, sent to Damascus on Monday as an EU emissary, said it appeared the Syrian government was intent on reforms.
"They are ready to move forward with reforms and changes, this has already been announced. But of course, the EU wants to see something more specific, it was among the issues we discussed," Kyprianou told Cyprus state radio.
(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Dominic Evans in Beirut and Michele Kambas in Cyprus; writing by Yara Bayoumy; editing by Michael Roddy)