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Thousands of students protest Syrian rule

BEIRUT -- Thousands of students demonstrated yesterday against Syria's authoritarian regime, brushing off President Bashar Assad's sweeping declarations of reform as the country's growing protest movement vowed to stage the biggest rallies to date Friday.

The monthlong uprising has posed the biggest challenge to the 40-year ruling dynasty of President Bashar Assad and his father before him. On Tuesday, Syria did away with 50 years of emergency rule, but defiant crowds accused Assad of simply trying to buy time while he clings to power.

"We are preparing for a huge demonstration on Friday," said an activist in the southern city of Daraa, where anti-government protests first erupted last month and spread nationwide later.

Prolonged instability in Syria could have serious repercussions well beyond its borders. The closed-off nation punches above its weight in terms of regional influence because of its alliances with militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and with Shia powerhouse Iran. That has given Damascus a pivotal role in most of the flash point issues of the Middle East, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran's widening influence.

Yesterday, 4,000 university students from Daraa and surrounding areas protested near the city's al-Omari Mosque.

Activists also said dozens of students protested at Aleppo University in the country's north, adding there were confrontations on campus between pro and anti-government students.

In Yemen, meanwhile, gunmen on motorcycles sped by and opened fire on demonstrators camped out in the early morning in a port city, killing one and wounding several others, an opposition activist said.

Radwan al-Obisi said the protesters in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida demanding the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh were attacked by thugs hired by the ruling party.

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