Protests continue in Syria, more reforms expected
Thousands of protesters took to the streets of the southern Syrian city of Daraa Saturday, ahead of more reforms expected to be announced by the government, dpa reported.
An official source told the German Press Agency dpa that "several announcements will be made including a cabinet reshuffle and other decisions concerning the role of the Baath party," which has ruled the country since 1963.
Baath Party leaders convened Saturday for their second meeting in three days, state television said, adding that "some important decisions will be taken."
The source said a cabinet reshuffle is expected to replace Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal.
On Friday, Bilal said that the situation was "totally calm" across the country, despite reports by human rights activists and witnesses that dozens of protesters had been killed when security forces opened fire on anti-government rallies.
A Syrian human rights activist also told dpa Saturday that the government had released more than 200 political prisoners. President Bashar al-Assad ordered the release of all those detained amid the recent unrest, as part of reforms promised by the government on Thursday.
However, presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban said the number released was exaggerated. "Where do rights groups get these numbers?" she asked reporters.
On Saturday, protesters in Daraa burnt down offices of the ruling Baath Party, according to a post on the Facebook page of Youth Syria for Freedom.
The post also said that some army officers, most of whom from Daraa, resigned in protest over the violence against protesters.
At least 55 people are believed to have been killed during a week of unrest in and around Daraa, Amnesty International said, adding that the circumstances of most of the deaths remained unclear. Broadcaster Al-Arabiya cited a doctor in Daraa as saying that as many as 150 people had been killed in the past days.
Sheikh Ahmed Hassoun, the Mufti of Syria, the highest religious authority in the country, deflected criticism away from the government, telling the Al-Jazeera news channel that "we will prove to you within hours that the bloodshed was caused by hands from outside Syria."
Despite Al-Assad's efforts at appeasement, calls for his ouster have been growing. Protests continued across Syria as the opposition dismissed the president's moves.
"And where are the 16,000 prisoners jailed over 30 years? Your empty promises will not deceive the people. We will continue until our demands are met," activists wrote on the Facebook page of Syrian Revolution 2011.
The United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay warned Syria in a statement Saturday against the violent crackdown on protesters.
Pillay said Syria should "draw lessons from recent events across the Middle East and North Africa which clearly demonstrate that violent repression of peaceful protest not only does not resolve the grievances of people taking to the streets, it risks creating a downward spiral of anger, violence, killings and chaos."
Bashar al-Assad has been president since 2000, following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad.
Meanwhile, the state-run news agency SANA said that one person died on Friday when an armed group attacked the Officers Club in the western city of Homs.
In al-Sanamein town, near Daraa, several gunmen were killed in an attack on army offices, SANA added.