Al Jazeera's Cal Perry reports on the continuing clashes between protesters and police in Syria

Syrian security forces have fired tear gas and live ammunition into the air to disperse hundreds of protesters in Daraa calling for an end to emergency laws, witnesses said.

The firing went on for several minutes on Monday, but the protesters - scores of whom have been killed in the ongoing protests - returned when the security forces stopped, the witnesses said.

The demonstrators had converged on a main square in Daraa chanting: "We want dignity and freedom" and "No to emergency laws", the witness added.

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 to demand the scrapping of emergency law, which was imposed when the Baath party took power in a 1963 coup.

The protesters are also demanding the release of thousands of political prisoners and want Bashar al-Assad, the president, to allow freedom of speech and assembly and curb the free reign the security apparatus enjoys in the country of 22 million.

"[They] 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.

Important speech

At least 61 people have been killed in 10 days of anti-government protests in southern Daraa, posing the most serious challenge to al-Assad's rule.

Assad, 45, has yet to respond to the demonstrations, which have spread to the port city of Latakia and Hama, but Farouq al-Shara, his vice-president, said the president would give an important speech in the next two days.

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Abu Tamam, a Daraa resident whose house overlooks the Omari mosque, said soldiers and central security forces occupied almost every metre 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.

Assad, who became president after the death of his father in 2000, has been criticised by the West and even close ally Turkey, Syria's northern neighbour, for using violence against peaceful protesters.

"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, the capital, said.

"I do not see Assad scrapping emergency law without replacing it with something just as bad," he added.

Arbitrary arrests

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.

Relatives of those killed in clashes on Friday said security forces - not gunmen - killed at least 10 people in Sanamin who had been demonstrating peacefully.

But Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to the president, told Al Jazeera that "what happened in Sanamin, it was not a protest, it was not a demonstration, it was a group of about 10 people who attacked a police station".

"They [then] went to a military station and were firing at the guards. And so, obviously, the guards, it's their duty to protect their military station. And here is where firing began and unfortunately there were victims there," she said.

The competing claims came as Syrian authorities announced they would scrap emergency rule.

The state also announced a series of reforms, including the release of detainees and plans to form new laws on the media and licensing political parties.

"There are many issues which were decided, and which are being followed up with the president and the government," Shaaban said.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies