BEIRUT — Thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets across Syria Monday after a televised appearance by President Bashar Assad, shouting for him to step down and chanting “Gadhafi is gone, now it’s your turn Bashar!”
Security forces opened fire in the central city of Homs, killing at least one person, a witness said. Crowds there and in several other cities were angered by Assad’s remarks on TV and taunted him with warnings that his regime would be the next to unravel, as Moammar Gadhafi’s 42-year rule was crumbling under a rebel advance in Libya.
Human rights groups say more than 2,000 people have been killed in the government’s crackdown on a five-month-old uprising. The regime has unleashed tanks and snipers in an attempt to stamp out the revolt.
In a now-familiar refrain, Assad on Sunday promised imminent reforms — including parliamentary elections by February — but insisted the unrest was being driven by armed gangs and Islamic militants, not true reform seekers.
He also said he was not worried about security in his country and warned against any Libya-style foreign military intervention. His remarks appeared designed to portray confidence as the regime comes under blistering international condemnation.
On Monday, Syria’s state-run news agency said Assad formed a committee to pave the way for the formation of political groups other than his Baath party, which has held a monopoly in Syria for decades.
The opposition rejected Assad’s remarks, saying they have lost confidence in his promises of reform while his forces open fire on peaceful protesters.
Thousands of people across several Syrian cities took to the streets after the interview.
In the flash point central city of Homs, a hotbed of dissent against the regime, protesters shouted that Assad will follow Gadhafi, whose whereabouts was unknown as rebels claimed to be in control of Libya’s capital.
“Gadhafi is gone, now it’s your turn Bashar!” they shouted, witnesses said.
A witness said a few thousand people converged on the main square in Homs known as Clock Square on Monday after they heard that a U.N. humanitarian team was to visit the city.
He said security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing one and wounding several others.
“Simply, without any introductions, they started shooting at them,” he said, asking that his name not be used for fear of government reprisals.
Syria granted a U.N. team permission to visit some of the centers of the protests and crackdown to assess humanitarian needs, but activists and a Western diplomat have accused the regime of trying to scrub away signs of the crackdown.
In Hama, another central city that has been a hotbed of dissent, pro-regime gunmen fired their guns in celebration after Assad’s appearance, killing two people overnight.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and another activist group called the Local Coordination Committees confirmed the deaths. Both groups cited witness accounts.
In the southern village of Hirak, four people were wounded when security forces opened fire on protesters, according to the observatory.