Syria hit by new protests even as Assad vows reform

Syria`s President has promised to end nearly 50 years of emergency rule.

Last Updated: Apr 18, 2011, 00:20 AM IST

Amman: Syrian protesters chanted slogans calling for greater freedom at an independence day rally in the southern town of Suweida on Sunday, a witness said, a day after President Bashar al-Assad promised to lift emergency law.

The rally took place to mark Evacuation Day, commemorating the departure of the last French soldiers 65 years ago and Syria`s proclamation of independence. Supporters of Assad were also present declaring loyalty to the president.

Assad said on Saturday emergency law, in place for almost 50 years, would be lifted by next week. But he did not address protesters` demands to curb Syria`s pervasive security apparatus and dismantle its authoritarian system.

"God, Syria, freedom, that`s all," chanted several hundred protesters among the crowd. They also shouted "no fear" and slogans supporting the city of Deraa, where protests first broke out a month ago and which has seen the heaviest bloodshed.

Rights groups say more than 200 people have been killed since demonstrations erupted in Deraa on March 18 in protest against the arrest of youths who had scrawled graffiti inspired by the Arab uprisings in North Africa.

The unprecedented unrest has spread across the tightly controlled state, posing the sternest challenge yet to the 45-year-old Assad, who assumed the presidency in 2000 when his father, Hafez al-Assad, died after 30 years in power.

Authorities have pledged to replace the repressive emergency law with anti-terrorism legislation, but opposition figures said this was likely to preserve tough restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly in Syria, under Baath Party rule since 1963.

"When the lifting of the emergency law package is issued, it should be firmly enforced. The Syrian people are civilised. They love order and they do not accept chaos and mob rule," Assad told a new cabinet which he named last week.

No leniency

"We will not be lenient toward sabotage," Assad said in the comments broadcast by state television. Syrian authorities have blamed "infiltrators" for stirring up unrest at the behest of outside players, including Lebanon and Islamist groups.

State news agency SANA said on Sunday a "large quantity" of weapons had been seized at the Tanaf border crossing with Iraq, including rifles, night vision goggles, explosives and pistols. It said officials also had recently seized arms shipments at crossings with Turkey and Lebanon.

Emergency law bans public gatherings of more than five people and served to throttle any public dissent until Syrians began taking to the streets, emboldened by the popular uprisings that ousted autocratic leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.

In his speech to the cabinet, Assad said corruption was a problem and a commission to address it should be set up. But he announced no measures to end his own family`s dominance over the Syrian economy.

His cousin Rami Makhlouf, a tycoon, has expanded his businesses during Assad`s rule and he has been widely cited by protesters in their calls for an end to public corruption.

The West, which had been trying to coax Syria away from its anti-Israeli alliance with Iran and support for militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, has urged Assad to refrain from violent crackdowns on disaffected Syrians.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed what he said was Assad`s "acknowledgement...that reform in Syria is necessary and urgent."

"We call on the Syrian government to lift the state of emergency next week as proposed by President Assad and to ensure that those responsible for the deaths of civilians are held to account," Hague said.

Bureau Report