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Protesters take over square after funerals

BEIRUT (AP) -- More than 5,000 anti-government protesters in Syria took over the main square of the country's third-largest city Monday, vowing to occupy the site until President Bashar Assad is ousted and defying authorities who warn they will not be forced into reforms.

The government, however, blamed the weeks of anti-government unrest in the country on ultraconservative Muslims seeking to establish a fundamentalist state and terrorize the people, in the latest official effort to portray the reform movement as populated by extremists.

The Egypt-style standoff in the central city of Homs followed funeral processions by more than 10,000 mourners for some of those killed in clashes Sunday that a rights group said left at least 12 people dead. It also brought a high-stakes challenge to security forces over whether to risk more bloodshed -- and international backlash -- by trying to clear the square.

The latest killings were bound to increase pressure on Assad, who has tried to quell the popular uprising with a mixture of brute force and concessions.

On Saturday, he promised to end nearly 50 years of emergency rule this week, a key demand of the protesters.

Syria's widely despised emergency laws have been in place since the ruling Baath Party came to power in 1963, giving the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge and extending state authority into virtually every aspect of life.

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Country prepares for Passover holiday

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israelis cleaned their houses, cars and offices Monday and cooked furiously in last-minute preparations for the weeklong holiday of Passover, which marks the biblical story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt.

The story recounts that God killed the first-born boys of Egypt after the pharaoh refused to release the children of Israel from bondage, but "passed over" the houses of the Israelites.

After that divine blow, the pharaoh gave in and let the Israelites go. They were then given the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai and wandered in the desert for 40 years before arriving in the Land of Israel.

The holiday began Monday night with a traditional seder meal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said President Obama called on Monday to wish the prime minister and the Israelis a happy Passover.

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Officers scout areas near royal wedding site

LONDON (AP) -- Public areas near Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey in London are being checked by special security teams in advance of the April 29 royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Police said Monday they had checked areas along the parade route for explosives that might have been hidden in drains, lampposts, traffic lights and other possible hiding places.

The goal of the checks, expected to continue until the big event is concluded, is to make the route the royal couple will use as secure as possible.

Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Fairman, who is coordinating the sweeps, said all vulnerable areas will be checked.

"Officers are trained to be vigilant and check areas where items may have been hidden," he said.

The wedding, one of the most anticipated public events in recent years, will draw an extraordinary collection of royals, politicians and VIPs including Queen Elizabeth II and roughly 50 foreign heads of state.

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