Syria`s Assad to chair new cabinet as demos spread

Bashar al-Assad is under rising pressure to lift a draconian emergency law.

Updated: Apr 16, 2011, 16:45 PM IST

Damascus: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is to address on Saturday a new government tasked with launching reform as protests demanding greater freedoms snowballed a month after they first broke out.

A policeman was killed in the central city of Homs on Friday, state media reported, on a day of widespread demonstrations and international calls for Syria to halt a bloody crackdown of protesters.

Assad, under rising pressure to lift a draconian emergency law and enact reforms in one of the Middle East`s most autocratic nations, was to chair the first cabinet meeting and deliver a speech, a senior official said.

"The speech will (then) be broadcast in the afternoon" by state media, said the official who declined to be named.

Prime Minister Adel Safar unveiled on Thursday his new cabinet, which is expected to carry out broad reforms including the lifting of emergency law imposed since Assad`s Baath party seized power in 1963.

The official SANA news agency said a policeman was killed when violence flared on Friday during an anti-regime demonstration in the industrial city of Homs.

The policeman who "was beaten with sticks and stones" would be buried on Saturday, the agency said.

In Homs, baton-wielding police had waded into a crowd of around 4,000 people who chanted "freedom, freedom”, political activist Najatai Tayara said.

Exactly a month after the first rare protest was staged in Damascus calling for the release of political prisoners, tens of thousands of people were again on the streets across Syria demanding greater freedoms.

Up to 3,000 protesters marched in the centre of the key protest town of Daraa, in southern Syria, where security forces shot dead at least seven people a week earlier.

"Between 2,500 and 3,000 people showed up at Al-Saraya area in the centre of the city, chanting slogans in favour of freedom and against the hostile regime," an activist said.

Security forces looked on as protesters chanted "Death rather than humiliation!" he said.

Hassan Berro, an activist in the northeastern Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli, said some 5,000 people emerged from a mosque there to demonstrate in solidarity with the people of Daraa and Banias.

Banias on the Mediterranean coast, home to Sunnis, Alawite Muslims and Christians, is another protest centre where government forces had killed at least four people on Sunday.

"With our souls and our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you Daraa," the protesters shouted in Qamishli, waving Syrian flags.

Another 4,500 people demonstrated in the three Kurdish neighbourhoods of Ras al-Ain, Amuda and Derbassiye, near Qamishli, Berro said.

Around 1,000 people held similar protests in the northwestern coastal city of Latakia while in Jobar, north of Damascus, police with batons and tear gas clashed with some 2,000 demonstrators, rights activists said.

And about 50 protesters clashed with police in Barz, near Damascus, throwing stones at them, said rights activist Abdel Karim Rihawi.

The United States and the United Nations renewed calls on Syria to halt the violence.

"It is time for the Syrian government to stop repressing their citizens and start responding to their aspirations," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Berlin on Friday.

A statement by the United Nations in Geneva denounced the regime`s bloody response to the protests.

On Thursday, Syria announced an amnesty for scores of prisoners detained in a month of protests and unveiled the new cabinet to replace the one that quit last month.

Human Rights Watch has accused Syrian security and intelligence services of torturing many of the hundreds of protesters detained since the demonstrations began.

Bureau Report