Anti-government protests in Syria - AP - March 23, 2011
Anti-Syrian government protesters flash V sign as they protest in the southern city of Daraa, Syria, Wednesday March 23, 2011. Photo by AP
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Thousands of Syrian demonstrators took to the streets on Wednesday, hours after embattled President Bashar Assad blamed the ongoing ant-government protests on foreign "plots hatched against our county".

The protesters marched through the port city of Latakia and the restive southern town of Daraa chanting "freedom". Security forces confronted the demonstrators in Latakia and witnesses reported hearing shots fired in the al-Sleibeh old district of the city, where one of at least two demonstrations took place.

While Assad delivered his speech in parliament, opposition members called on the protesters to "go down into the streets now and announce the uprising - control all the cities and declare civil disobedience from this moment onward."

Assad referred to the demonstrations in his address as events meant to enforce an "Israeli agenda", and declared that the people and government of Syria would withstand the foreign conspiracy and plots through national unity.

"Syria is a target of a big plot from outside, both internally and externally. If there is something happening it is using the cover of accusing Syria of popular response .If there are reformers we will support them. Those people have a mixed and confused intellectual ways," Assad said.

He said the objective of the conspirators, who make up a minority, was to "fragment and bring down Syria" and "enforce an Israeli agenda."

The Syrian leader claimed that protests were a mix of a genuine need for reform and instigators influenced by foreign plots that were responsible for the killings and destruction.

"The plotters are the minority…we didn't know what had happened until the sabotage operations had happened, since then we could see the difference between reform and killing," Assad said, adding that "We are for people's demands but we cannot support chaos and destruction."

Referring to the people of Daraa, where the most violent protests took place, Assad said that the "People of Daraa are not responsible for what happened, not responsible for the chaos that ensued."

"They [the people of Daraa] are true patriots, people of true integrity, and the ones that will eliminate whoever instigated this violence," Assad said, blaming foreign plotters of moving Daraa modus moperandi implemented in Daraa to other cities.

Syria's president is expected to introduce a number of reforms including the lifting of Syria's emergency law, which has been in place since the Baath Pary came to power in 1963.

Violent government crackdowns on protests in recent weeks have been reported in the cities of Daraa and Latakia. Witnesses and the US-based Human Rights Watch has put the number of people killed at 73.

On Tuesday, Syria's cabinet resigned in an attempt to quell popular fury, with Syrian state TV reporting that Assad accepted the resignation of the 32-member Cabinet headed by Naji al-Otari, who has been in place since September 23.

The Cabinet will continue running the country's affairs until the formation of a new government.

The resignations will not affect Assad, who holds the lion's share of power in the authoritarian regime.

The Syria Revolution 2011 Facebook page has been calling on all the "free people of Syria," to stage sit-ins across the country Friday, ignoring promises by the government to discuss their demands.

Thousands took to the streets of Damascus and other cities on Wednesday to express their support for Assad, who has been in office since 2000.