Syria pledges reforms, to "study" ending emergency

More than 100 killed in Syrian protest: activists


Syria will "study" ending an emergency law in place since 1963 and look into licensing political parties, a presidential adviser said Thursday after a week of deadly protests in the country's south.

"I am happy to announce to you the decisions made today by the Arab Baath party under the auspices of President Bashar al-Assad... which include... studying the possibility of lifting the emergency law and licensing political parties," the president's media adviser Buthaina Shaaban said at a news conference.

The announcement came after one week of protests in the southern city of Daraa against the regime of Assad, whose Baath party has ruled Syria unchallenged for 40 years.

Shaaban said the Baath party had agreed to a series of reforms, including raising the salaries of state employees.

Syria would also look into putting into effect a "mechanism" to fight corruption and passing the necessary legislation, she said.

The government would also form a committee to listen to the demands of the people of Deraa, a tribal city at Syria's border with Jordan that has been the focal point of the week-long protests.

A human rights activist on Thursday said more than 100 people had been shot dead in Deraa on Wednesday alone.

Shaaban earlier put the overall Deraa death toll at 10.

A hospital official said on Thursday, at least 37 people were killed in the Syrian city of Deraa, in an escalation in protests which have prompted the government to promise to listen to protesters' demands.

Deraa protests

Security forces opened fire on hundreds of youths at the northern entrance to Deraa on Wednesday, witnesses said, after nearly a week of protests in which seven civilians had already been killed since Friday.

The main hospital in Deraa, in southern Syria near the Jordanian border, had received the bodies of at least 37 protesters killed on Wednesday, a hospital official said.

Around 20,000 people marched on Thursday in the funerals for nine of those killed, chanting freedom slogans and denying official accounts that infiltrators and "armed gangs" were behind the killings and violence in Deraa.

"Traitors do not kill their own people ... God, Syria, Freedom. The blood of martyrs is not spilt in waste!" they chanted in Deraa's southern cemetery.

As Syrian soldiers armed with AK-47s roamed the streets of the southern city, residents emptied shops of staples and basic goods and said they feared Assad's government was intent on crushing the revolt by force.

Assad, a close ally of Iran, key player in neighboring Lebanon and supporter of militant groups opposed to Israel, had earlier dismissed demands for reform in Syria, a country of 20 million people run by the Baath Party since a 1963 coup.

A government statement had blamed "armed gangs" for the violence in Deraa.

Middle East unrest

Syria has been the least expected to be hit by the popular unrest sweeping the Middle East because of its perceived iron-fisted security policies.

Taken by surprise and amid an attempted failure to quell the protests by force, President Bashar al-Assad sacked provincial governor of Deraa aisal Kalthoum on Wednesday in the second apparent concession to protesters since the uprising.

There were also reports that a number of local security officials reviled by people had been reassigned or suspended.

In some Arab countries hit by popular unrest, government concessions have often emboldened demonstrators and prompted popular demands to rise and in others, such as Libya, the refusal to acknowledge such demands have led demonstrations to take a bloody turn

In first vocal western response to the events France urged Syria to carry out political reforms without delay and respect its commitments to human rights.

"France calls on Syria to follow its international commitments to human rights, to which it has signed up especially with regard to freedom of expression and opinion," foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said in a daily briefing to reporters.

"Political reforms must be put in place without delay to meet the aspirations of the Syrian people," he said.

Again troubled by another unexpected Arab uprising, the Obama administration called on the Syrian Government to “exercise restraint” against its peaceful protesters.

"The United States is deeply troubled by violence and civilian deaths in Deraa at the hands of security forces," the State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, said.

"We are concerned by the Syrian Government's use of violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrests in Deraa to hinder the ability of its people to freely exercise their universal rights," he said.

The United States was largely criticized for its delayed response to a brutal crackdown of peaceful protests in Libya and President Barack Obama was accused in Washington of dithering on Egypt.

*(Compiled by Mustapha Ajbaili)