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DARAA, Syria (


) -- Security forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired tear gas on thousands of demonstrators on Monday in a crackdown aimed at suppressing the recent popular uprisings, according to reports.

Syrian troops opened fire on a crowd of up to 4,000 protesters in the southern city of Daraa,

The Associated Press

reported, citing eyewitnesses. At least 61 civilians have been killed since rallies began March 18, said Human Rights Watch, after security forces opened fire on demonstrators in at least six locations around the nation.

Protesters gathered in Daraa on Monday, inspired by pro-democracy demonstrations in other Arab countries, to call for more political freedoms in Syria.

Assad's forces fired tear gas at the crowd and live ammunition into the air to disperse the demonstrators.

Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Shara said Assad is planning to give an important speech within the next two days in an apparent effort to ease the tension. The government also has pledged that it would consider lifting some of the country's oppressive emergency laws to appease the 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 said,


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

Assad has been criticized by many foreign nations for his implementation of violence against his own civilians.

--Written by Theresa McCabe in Boston.

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