AMMAN (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad ended Syria's state of emergency, in effect for nearly 50 years, on Thursday in an attempt to defuse mass protests against his authoritarian rule that have gripped Syria for over a month.
His announcement, endorsing a law passed by the government this week, came ahead of what activists described as "Great Friday" protests in several Syrian cities when more people are expected to take to the streets after Muslim Friday prayers.
Thousands of Syrians, inspired by uprisings sweeping the Arab world, have demonstrated to demand greater freedom in their policed-controlled country, presenting Assad with the most serious and sustained challenge to his 11-year rule.
"We are determined on totally peaceful protests... we rejoice at the downfall of the state of emergency. It was not lifted, it was toppled... With the help of God, we will embark on freedom," a comment on a Facebook page run by activists said.
The abolition of emergency rule, used since Assad's Baath Party seized power in 1963 to justify arbitrary arrests and detention and a ban on all opposition, is symbolic since other laws still give entrenched security forces wide powers.
Leading opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh said the move was meaningless without an independent judiciary and curbs on the powers of the security forces.
"The state has a multitude of tools of repression at its disposal that have to be dismantled for repression to end," Maleh told Reuters.
Rights activist Ammar Qurabi welcomed the move but told Reuters other measures must follow, such as the release of prisoners detained in the unrest and a retrial in civil courts for all those convicted by the state security court.
State TV said Assad also endorsed legislation that regulates protests and dissolves a state security court which lawyers said violated the rule of law and the right to a fair trial.
Other demands include freeing thousands of political prisoners, many of whom are held without trial, and the removal of clause 8 in the constitution which enshrines the Baath Party as the leader of state and society.
Assad's conciliatory move followed a familiar pattern since the unrest began a month ago: pledges of reform are made a day before Friday when demonstrations have been the strongest, and are usually followed by an intense crackdown.
Residents in the southern city of Deraa, where protests first erupted in March, said army units took up positions closer to the city after having abandoned them in the last two days.
A rights activist said trucks carrying soldiers and vehicles equipped with machine guns were seen on highway from Damascus to Homs, a central city that has emerged as the new focal point of protests in mostly Sunni Muslim Syria.
Security forces wielding assault rifles were deployed in Homs, a witness said, where residents organized neighborhood patrols after 21 protesters were shot dead on Monday and Tuesday by security police and Alawite gunmen known as 'al-shabbiha'.
Assad's security apparatus, dominated by minority Alawites, has used gunfire and brutality to cow protesters. Authorities have blamed armed groups, infiltrators and Salafi fundamentalist organizations for firing on civilians and security forces.
Rights groups say more than 200 people have been killed since protests started.
Former vice president Abdelhalim Khaddam said the crackdown would eventually lead to Assad's overthrow, adding he expected the army to stop supporting Assad. [nLDE73K0RR]
"People in Homs are scared and angry," Wissam Tarif, director of the Insan human rights group, told Reuters.
"Shabbiha and security are obvious in the streets. Kalashnikovs and other weapons are in their hands. Al Saha al Jadida square is packed with security forces. Security is mixed between civilian and uniformed," he said.
The most extensive protests since an armed Islamist revolt in 1982 have included ordinary Syrians, secularists, leftists, tribals, Islamists and students.
Western and other Arab countries have mostly muted their criticism of the crackdown in Syria for fear of destabilizing a country of 20 million people that borders on Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq and is at the heart of many regional conflicts.
Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Sami Aboudi in Cairo; writing by Yara Bayoumy; editing by Samia Nakhoul and Paul Taylor