Homs is just one of several Syrian cities where anti-government protests have raged in recent weeks [AFP]

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, has appointed a new governor in the central city of Homs, where witnesses say security forces have been deployed in anticipation of more protests.

The official news agency said on Thursday that Ghassan Abdul-Al was named for the post after the government sacked his predecessor on April 7.

Al-Assad also issued decrees ending nearly five decades of emergency rule, abolishing state security courts and allowing citizens to protest peacefully, state television reported on Thursday.

The announcements, made successively in news flashes on state television, said Assad was ending the state of emergency - imposed when the ruling Baath Party seized power in 1963 - as well as the state security courts.

A third decree said citizens would be granted "the right to peacefully demonstrate" and noted that this is one of the "basic human rights guaranteed by the Syrian constitution".

However, Haitham al-Maleh, a prominent Syrian opposition figure, dismissed the decrees, arguing that the move was "useless" without an independent judiciary and accountability for security apparatus.

"The problem is that the ruling elite and the security have put their hands on the judiciary and other legislation [introduced by them] exempt the security forces from being held accountable to law," he said.

Maleh is a lawyer and a former judge who has long campaigned for an end to the emergency law.

Ghias al-Jundi, a rights activist based in London, said neither the move to end emergency rule, nor the dismissal of the head of the security services in Baniyas [a coastal town] and other concessions by Assad, would stop the protests.

"The people want proper reform and democracy, and a real end to emergency law," he told Al Jazeera.

"I think of the demonstrations started with demands of reform but the regime responded badly, by killing and detaining people. Now they're asking for regime change and demands are getting higher. In all funerals and protests now we are hearing the people want to topple the regime."

The developments came as rights activists said lorries carrying soldiers and vehicles equipped with machine guns were seen on a highway linking Homs and Damascus in preparation for Friday's protest rallies called by online activists.

"The feeling here on the ground is certainly that the Syrian government is playing a carrot-and-stick game," Al Jazeera's Cal Perry reported from the Syrian capital.

He said that the mood in Damascus "seems like the calm before the storm".

Violent crackdown

Homs has been shaken by violent confrontations as Syrian security forces have cracked down on anti-government protesters over the past weeks. Activists said about 20 demonstrators were killed earlier this week when when security forces fired on people.

A witness in Homs said almost all shops in the city were closed for the third straight day on Thursday, after activists had called for a general strike.

Residents in the southern city of Daraa said army units took up positions closer to the city after having abandoned them in the last two days.

Separately, a small protest was held outside Hasakah University in the country's mainly Kurdish northeast. Dozens of people gathered, chanting their support for those in Daraa, Baniyas and Homs calling for more freedom. 

One of the organisers told Al Jazeera that the students were prevented from leaving the university to protest in the city and that police and pro-government students were used to break up the rally. There were no reports of injuries or arrests.

Protests took place on Wednesday in several parts of the country, including a student protest in Aleppo, the country's largest city, where no major rallies have yet been held.

Activists say nationwide rallies are planned to be held on Friday, dubbed Great Friday.

Amnesty International, the London-based rights organisation, says about 220 people have been killed in the crackdown on the protests.

The unrest began with a small protest calling for the release of political prisoners in Damascus on March 15 and gained strength three days later when thousands marched in Daraa.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies