Thousands chant “freedom” despite Assad reform offer

DERAA, Syria, (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad  made a rare public pledge to look into granting Syrians greater  freedom today as anger mounted following attacks by  security forces on protesters that left at least 37 dead.
Despite the promise and the offer of large public pay rises,  thousands of Syrians turned out to chant “freedom, revolution”  in the centre of the southern city of Deraa, the focal point of  protests against 48 years of Baath Party rule.
“The Syrian people do not bow,” they also chanted around the  main Omari mosque, shortly after security forces evacuated the  building which they stormed on Wednesday.
Syrian opposition figures said the promises did not meet the  aspirations of the people and were similar to those repeated at  regular Baath Party conferences, where committees would be  formed to study reforms that then never saw the light of day.
“The leadership is trying to absorb the rage of the streets.  We want to see reform on the ground,” said a Deraa protester.
A hospital official said at least 37 people had been killed  in Deraa on Wednesday when security forces opened fire on  demonstrators inspired by uprisings across the Arab world that  have shaken authoritarian leaders.
While an aide said Assad would study a possible end to 48  years of emergency rule, a human rights group said a leading  pro-democracy activist, Mazen Darwish, had been arrested.
Announcing promises for reform in a manner 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 state were being killed.”
On Jan 31 Assad had said there was no chance political  upheavals then shaking Tunisia and Egypt would spread to Syria.
After today’s announcement, Syrian television showed  a large procession of cars in Deraa driving in support of Assad  with pictures of the president plastered on the vehicles.
The Baath Party, which has ruled for half a century, will  draft laws to provide for media freedoms, and will look at  allowing other political movements. The party will also seek to  lift living standards and consider ending the rule of emergency  law.
Authorities released all those arrested in the Deraa region  since the protests erupted, an official statement said but it  did not give a figure. The statement also said Assad ordered a  20 to 30 percent salary rise for public employees across Syria.
“When you first hear it you think they’re making major  concessions, but when you look at it you realise there’s not a  lot there besides the salary boost,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria  expert at Oklahoma University in the U.S.. “You understand the  regime is in a very difficult spot and they’re flustered.”
Security forces opened fire on hundreds of youths on the  outskirts of Deraa on Wednesday, witnesses said, after nearly a  week of protests in which seven civilians had already died.
The main hospital in Deraa, near the Jordanian border, had  received the bodies of at least 37 protesters killed on  Wednesday, a hospital official said. That brings the number  killed to at least 44 in a week of protests.
About 20,000 people marched today in the funerals for  nine of those killed, chanting freedom slogans and denying  official accounts that “armed gangs” were behind the killings  and violence.

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