Syria's Assad to chair new cabinet as demos spread

DAMASCUS (AFP) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was to address Saturday a new government tasked with launching reforms as protests demanding greater freedoms snowballed a month after they first broke out.

Thousands of Syrians, meanwhile, attended the funeral of a man who succumbed to his wounds after being shot by regime agents last Sunday in the northwestern city of Banias, witnesses and activists said.

The mourners chanted slogans in favor of greater freedoms, against the ruling Baath party, in power since 1963, while some also called for an end to the regime, the sources told AFP.

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 as state television began broadcasting the swearing in of cabinet ministers.

Assad made his first public comments two weeks after the protests erupted, telling parliament the violence was part of a "conspiracy" against Syria but keeping mum on the notorious emergency law.

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

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

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 told AFP by telephone.

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, waving Syrian flags, demonstrated in solidarity with the people of Daraa and Banias.

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

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

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 threw stones at police in Barz, near Damascus, said rights activist Abdel Karim Rihawi.

A global outcry over deadly crackdowns on month-old, anti-regime demonstrations widened on Friday with the United States and the United Nations renewing 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 Friday.

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

The new Safar cabinet is expected to reform the restrictive media and political parties law -- demands tabled years ago by the country's opposition which seeks a role politics and an end to corruption.

The opposition also wants the suppression of Article 8 of the Constitution which stipulates the Baath party is the leading party in society and the state.

On Thursday Syria announced an amnesty for scores of prisoners detained in a month of protests. But the Syrian League for Human Rights said on Saturday that "several activists," including prominent pro-democracy writer and journalist, were still behind bars.

Other news