Syria on road to `comprehensive reforms`: Assad

Syrian President Bashar Assad said the country is moving toward "comprehensive reforms," as activists said the army sealed off a key port city where protesters were holding demonstrations.

Last Updated: Apr 10, 2011, 23:55 PM IST

Beirut: Syrian President Bashar Assad said on Sunday the country is moving toward "comprehensive reforms," as
activists said the army sealed off a key port city where
protesters were holding demonstrations.

One activist said there were tanks in the streets
around Banias, which would mark the first time the army had
deployed tanks to help quell the unrest. The account could not
be independently confirmed.

Protests erupted in Syria more than three weeks ago
and have been growing steadily every week, with tens of
thousands of people calling for sweeping reforms in Assad`s
authoritarian regime. More than 170 people have been killed.

"President Assad confirmed that Syria is moving ahead
on the road of comprehensive reforms," the state-run news
agency SANA said Sunday. In recent weeks, Assad has answered
the protesters with both force and limited concessions that
have failed to appease an emboldened movement inspired by the
Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Today, the army set up checkpoints at the entrances to
the port city of Banias, said leading opposition figure
Haitham al-Maleh.

"There are demonstrations throughout the city and
people are chanting against the regime," said Al-Maleh, an
80-year-old lawyer and longtime rights activist who spent
years as a political prisoner in Syria. He spent six years in
jail in the 1980s, was jailed again in 2010 and was released
last month.

Another activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity
for fear of government reprisals, said residents told him the
army brought in tanks to areas around the city. He added that
soldiers were checking people`s identifications as they
entered or left Banias.

The accounts could not be independently confirmed. The
government has placed severe restrictions on news coverage and
many journalists have been detained and expelled from the
country.

Al-Maleh said residents had to drive outside the city
to be able to make telephone calls after authorities cut
mobile and land lines as well as Internet connections in the
city. Repeated calls by The Associated Press to the city were
not going through, making it difficult to gather details.

Syria`s National Organization for Human Rights said one person
was wounded in Banias, but there were no details.

The government blames the violence on armed gangs
rather than true reform-seekers and has vowed to crush further
unrest, raising the risks of more bloodshed. Syria`s Interior
Ministry said Saturday it will not tolerate "the intentional
mixing between peaceful protests and sabotage and sowing
sectarian strife."

PTI