Syria unrest: Government pledges political reforms

Amateur footage purportedly shows recent violence in the city of Deraa

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Syrian leaders have pledged to introduce reforms to meet the demands of protesters, after days of violence in the southern city of Deraa.

Officials promised to study the need for lifting the state of emergency, in place since 1963.

The government also said it would bring to trial those suspected of killing several protesters in Deraa.

President Bashar al-Assad later ordered the release of everyone arrested during the "recent events", state media said.

Presidential spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban blamed outside agitators for whipping up trouble, and denied that the government had ordered security forces to open fire on protesters.

Watch: Bouthaina Shaaban said the president expressed his condolences to the people of Deraa

But she said this "did not mean mistakes had not been made".

"We should not confuse the behaviour of an individual, and the desire and determination of President Bashar al-Assad to move Syria to more prosperity," she told a news conference in Damascus.

Relaxing restrictions?

A committee would be set up to talk to "our brothers in Deraa" and bring to justice those responsible for killing protesters, Ms Shaaban said.

She also said the government would raise workers' wages, introduce health reforms, allow more political parties to compete in elections, relax media restrictions and establish a new mechanism for fighting corruption.

Ms Shaaban announced a similar package of reforms in 2005, but critics say her pledges were never enacted.

At the scene

The announcement came as a surprise to many observers here.

Soon after the press conference, some political activists arrested in recent days were released. The prominent writer Louay Husein, arrested two days ago, is now out of detention and with his family.

The president's spokeswoman confessed that mistakes were made in Deraa, but said they were not the responsibility of the leadership. She denied reports that security forces attacked protesters in the city.

A call for a nationwide protest on Friday went out following the violence in Deraa. Those demonstrations will be a test of how the public receives the government concessions.

Opposition groups reacted to the news conference immediately, telling Reuters news agency that the Deraa committee would do nothing to meet the aspirations of the people.

Reuters reported that dissidents in Syria and in exile dismissed the reforms, calling for the immediate scrapping of the state of emergency and freeing of thousands of political prisoners.

Abdul-Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian Human Rights League, later said authorities had released several activists including prominent journalist Mazen Darwish and writer Louay Husein.

Ms Shaaban accused international media, including the BBC and CNN, of exaggerating the crackdown on the protesters.

Estimates vary as to how many people were killed in Wednesday's unrest.

Some reports quoting witnesses and activists have put the figure as high as 100; others have claimed about 15 people were killed.

The government said 10 people had died.

DERAA

  • Located 120km (75 miles) south of Damascus
  • Mainly Sunni Muslim population
  • Long known as gateway to the south
  • Close to Jordanian border, and Islamist group bases in Jordan
  • Thought Islamist groups could help exploit collapse of government control in Deraa

Security forces opened fired on crowds three times in Deraa on Wednesday, activists and witnesses said.

The first clashes took place in the early hours outside a mosque. Later, witnesses said crowds at a funeral for those who were killed were themselves fired on.

Later on Thursday, the US issued a strongly worded statement condemning Syria's "brutal repression" of demonstrations.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the US called on the government in Damascus to "exercise restraint and respect the rights of its people".

President Assad succeeded his father in 2000 and has tolerated little dissent.

Deraa map

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