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Syrian security forces fired tear gas and live bullets on a crowd of thousands of protesters in the central square of Homs late Monday night, just hours after the Syrian Interior Ministry said the protests of the last few weeks are the equivalent of an "armed insurrection," Al Jazeera reported.
Homs, Syria's third-largest city, was shut down by the Army and surrounded by three rings of checkpoints before security forces opened fire on the demonstration at about 2:15 a.m. on Tuesday. A Syrian rights activist told Al Jazeera that there were 10,000 people in the city square at the time. In recent days, Homs has been the site of some of the country's largest protests.
The New York Times reports that the "renewed protests amounted to a rejection of concessions outlined by President Bashar al-Assad in a televised address Saturday, notably lifting the country’s 48-year-old state of emergency by the end of this week."
The number of casualties from the overnight attack is so far unclear, and may remain uncertain because many of the protesters are afraid to go to local hospitals, where they worry Syrian security forces could be waiting, according to Al Jazeera.
Designating the protests as an "armed insurrection" is a step up from last week, when the Syrian government placed the blame for the protests on "foreign saboteurs" and said its use of force against demonstrations was justified because "there is no more room for leniency or tolerance in enforcing law, preserving security of country and citizens, and protecting general order," The Christian Science Monitor reported.
That was the government's first public acknowledgment that it was intentionally using force against the protesters. SANA, reporting on the Interior Ministry statement, wrote that "the Ministry said it will not be lenient with such terrorist acts and it will work strictly to enhance security and stability all over Syria and pursue terrorists everywhere to bring them to justice."
"Some of these groups have called for armed insurrection under the motto of jihad to set up a Salafist state," the ministry statement read, referring to the Salafi movement of ultraconservative Sunni Islam, according to Al Jazeera's translation. "What they did is an ugly crime severely punished by law. Their objective is to spread terror across Syria."
According to the Associated Press, the Homs protesters said they would not leave the protest camp they set up in the city square until President Assad stepped down. Their demand, which may be the first for Assad's removal, is a "brazen escalation" – previously the protesters' demands were limited to political reforms, such as the lifting of the country's state of emergency.
Assad has been in power for a decade. He followed his father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled the country for almost 30 years. While his policies have been sometimes unpopular, the younger Assad has been able to maintain popular support by portraying his strong-armed policies and rule as essential to holding together the country, which has significant sectarian divides.