) -- Syria's 32-member cabinet, headed by Naji al-Otari, resigned on Tuesday in an apparent effort to quell the popular uprisings that have spread throughout the Middle East nation for over a week, according to reports.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians gathered in a central Damascus square on Tuesday to rally in support of President Assad as he faces the biggest challenge to his 11-year rule.

The resignations don't affect President Bashar al-Assad or his position. He holds onto most of the power in the authoritarian regime,

The Associated Press


Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Shara said Assad is planning to give an important speech within the next 24 hours to try to calm the growing dissent. He is expected to lift the country's oppressive emergency laws that have been in place since 1963.

The cabinet plans to continue running the country until a new government is formed,


said, citing Syrian state TV reports.

"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."

Syrian state TV showed footage of hundreds of thousands of pro-government demonstrators gathering in the streets on Tuesday in government-sanctioned rallies.

The civil unrest has brought out sectarian tensions in Syria between the protesters and the pro-regime demonstrators. The Middle East nation with a Sunni majority is ruled by minority Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam. Assad has been known to place his fellow Alawites in powerful government positions.

Protesters have been gathering around the nation, inspired by pro-democracy demonstrations in other Arab countries, to call for more political freedoms and civil liberties in Syria. 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.

Assad has been criticized by many foreign nations for his implementation of violence against peaceful demonstrators.

--Written by Theresa McCabe in Boston.

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