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Protests in Syria

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                              DAMASCUS, March 31, 2011 -- Syria is launching an immediate probe into the deaths of "civilians and troops" in Daraa and Latakia, two cities that have emerged as the focal points of protests, state media reported Thursday. "Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has charged the head of the judges' council with forming a committee to begin an investigation, effective immediately, into the deaths of civilians and troops in the governorates of Daraa and Latakia," read a report on the state-run news agency SANA.

                              Assad is facing domestic pressure unprecedented in his 11-year rule as protests demanding greater freedoms in the country, which has been in a state of emergency for close to 50 years, enter their third week. The southern governorate of Daraa, a tribal area at the Jordanian border, and the multi-confessional northern city of Latakia have witnessed the most persistent protests demanding major changes in Syria, which has been ruled by the Baath party since 1963. Protesters have called for more rallies across Syria after weekly Muslim prayers on Friday. Activists estimate more than 130 people have been killed in clashes with security forces, mainly in Daraa and Latakia. Officials put the death toll at closer to 30.

                              Syria also is forming a judicial committee to form new legislation and lift Syria's state of emergency, in force since 1963, the state news agency SANA reported Thursday. "Under a directive by President Bashar al-Assad, a committee of legal experts has been formed to study new laws on national security and counter-terrorism, in order to pave the way for ending the state of emergency," SANA said. "The committee should finish its work by April 25," it added.

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                              • #45

                                April 1, 2011 -- Several deaths have been reported as anti-government protests got under way in several Syrian cities after Muslim prayers on Friday, activists have said. Protest marches against Baath Party rule demanding freedoms broke out in cities in the north and south, including the flashpoint city of Daraa. Hundreds of people took to the streets in and around the capital, Damascus, on Friday afternoon as security forces and ruling party loyalists attacked protesters with batons in Rifaii mosque in the city. Syrian forces reportedly fired tear gas at protesters in the suburb of Douma, and in the coastal cities of Latakia and Banias.

                                Al Jazeera's Rula Amin, reporting from Damascus, said at least four people were killed in the afternoon after government forces started using live fire against the protesters in the Douma suburb. "Some protesters told us they were there chanting for freedom peacefully," she said. "The security forces in plain clothes tried to disperse them with sticks ... people started running into the alleys, and then the security forces started shooting at them." Our correspondent said at least four persons were killed and 30 injured in the village of Sanamin, besieged by the Syrian army, when people from nearby villages were barred from paying their respects to those killed earlier in the week.

                                For the first time, the government acknowledged there were pro-reform demonstrations in cities, but said there was no friction between security forces and protesters. Syria's SANA news agency said worshippers left mosques in Daraa and Latakia "chanting slogan in honour of the martyr and calling for speeding up measures for reform". "There were no clashes between worshippers and security forces in these gatherings," the agency said. The rallies, taking place for the third week in succession after Friday prayers, come two days after Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, labelled them a foreign conspiracy. Assad defied expectations during his first public address since the protests began that he would announce sweeping changes.

                                Witnesses in Daraa, a southern town that has been one of the main focal points of rising dissent, said hundreds gathered after leaving a mosque shouting "death rather humiliation" and "national unity". Protest organisers quoted by the AFP news agency said rallies were also being staged for the first time in the mainly Kurdish-populated northeast. "Several hundred people marched peacefully in the streets of Qamishli and Amuda … chanting 'we don't only want citizenship but freedom as well'," Radif Mustafa, a Kurdish rights activist, told AFP.

                                Earlier, our correspondent Rula Amin said some of the protests were attended by hundreds of people while others had only dozens, but security was equally tight in the capital and other cities. "What is significant is that the protests took place despite the president's speech and the three government announcements on Thursday to address some of the demands. The government has not used any ammunition so far. They have been using tear gas and water cannon. Security forces were also in plain clothes arresting or attacking protesters using sticks." Our correspondent said Syria now was different from three weeks ago. "There are protesters and protests across the country, and the government appears to be showing more tolerance than it showed two weeks ago. But it is too early to judge how things will turn out by the end of today," Rula Amin added.

                                Activists estimate more than 160 people have been killed by security forces in the protests - dubbed "Friday of Martyrs" after weekly Muslim prayers across Syria - mainly in Daraa. Officials say about 30 people have died and accuse Muslim extremists and "armed gangs" of pushing peaceful rallies into violence with the aim of inciting sectarian unrest in the country. In a video message posted online, Haytham Maleh, a Syrian human rights lawyer, called on protesters to keep up their pressure until the government bows to their demands. "I appeal to Syrians to continue to put pressure on the authorities to fulfil the legitimate demands they have," he said, warning the government would "assume full responsibility for the consequences" of failing to satisfy the protest movement.

                                Faced with mounting pressure, Assad on Thursday ordered a string of reforms, including a study of new laws on the media and political pluralism, and plans to tackle the plight of 300,000 Kurds denied citizenship for nearly 50 years. Assad also ordered an immediate investigation into the Daraa and Latakia killings and the formation of a committee to draft new laws on national security and counter-terrorism. State-run media said the committee set up by the Baath Party's regional command would "pave the way for ending the state of emergency" and should complete its work by April 25.

                                Emergency law was imposed following the Baath Party coup that brought Hafez al-Assad to power in 1962 and has remained in place ever since. The popular protests were sparked off by the arrest of several teenagers who wrote anti-government graffiti on walls in the southern city of Daraa. The rallies spread to other parts of the country last week. Within hours of Assad's speech, residents of the Mediterranean port city of Latakia said troops opened fire during a protest by about 100 people, although it was not immediately clear whether they were firing in the air or at the protesters. The residents asked that their names not be published for fear of reprisals. Latakia, which has a potentially volatile mix of different religious groups, has already become a flashpoint for violence that could take on a dangerous sectarian tone in the coming days and weeks.

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