Syria President offers more freedoms after forces kill 37 - 24Mar2011 - English

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http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/24/us-syria-idUSTRE72N2MC20110324. President Bashar al-Assad made an unprecedented pledge of greater freedom and more prosperity to Syrians Thursday as anger mounted following a crackdown on protesters that left at least 37 dead. As an aide to Assad in Damascus read out a list of decrees, which included a possible end to 48 years of emergency rule, a human rights group said a leading pro-democracy activist, Mazen Darwish, had been arrested. In the southern city of Deraa, a hospital official said at least 37 people had been killed there Wednesday when security forces opened fire on demonstrators inspired by uprisings across the Arab world that have shaken authoritarian leaders. Announcing the sort of concessions that would have seemed almost unimaginable three months ago in Syria, Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told a news conference the president had not himself ordered his forces to fire on protesters: "I was a witness to the instructions of His Excellency that live ammunition should not be fired -- even if the police, security forces or officers of the status were being killed." Assad, she said, would draft laws to provide for media freedoms and allow political movements other than the Baath party, which has ruled for half a century. Assad, who succeed his late father Hafez al-Assed in 2000, had, Shaaban said, decreed the drafting of a law for political parties "to be presented for public debate" and would strive above all to raise living standards across the country. She said another decree would look at "ending with great urgency the emergency law, along with issuing legislation that assures the security of the nation and its citizens." DERAA KILLINGS Security forces opened fire on hundreds of youths on the outskirts of Deraa Wednesday, witnesses said, after nearly a week of protests in which seven civilians had already died. The main hospital in Deraa, in southern Syria near the Jordanian border, had received the bodies of at least 37 protesters killed Wednesday, a hospital official said. Around 20,000 people marched 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," they chanted. "God, Syria, Freedom. The blood of martyrs is not spilled in vain!" As Syrian soldiers armed with automatic rifles roamed the streets of the southern city, residents emptied shops of 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. Assad's father took personal in 1970.

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