Syria’s Assad names new PM, faces defiant suburb

AMMAN (Reuters) – Thousands of Syrians called for freedom at the funeral of eight protesters yesterday, a witness said, after President Bashar al-Assad named the former agriculture minister to form a new government.

“Freedom, freedom, freedom. One, one, one. The Syrian people are one,” mourners chanted as they carried eight bodies draped in Syrian flags through the streets of Douma, a suburb of the capital Damascus.

Witnesses said on Friday that security forces opened fire on protesters in Douma, which has become a gathering point for people descending on Damascus from outlying provinces. Syria has blamed the violence in Douma and other cities on “armed groups”.

The protests, inspired by Arab uprisings which have toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, pose the biggest threat to Assad’s 11-year rule in Syria, which has been governed by emergency law and a single political party since 1963.

Before the protests Assad had succeeded in eroding years of Western isolation while maintaining an anti-Israel alliance with Iran, hosting militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, and holding intermittent and indirect peace talks with Israel. Activists and witnesses say more than 60 people have been killed in two weeks of protests and opposition activist Maamoun al-Homsi said on Wednesday he had the names of 105 people killed. Statements by authorities suggest a toll nearer 30. Yesterday, Assad named Adel Safar, agriculture minister in the government which resigned last week, to form a new cabinet.

Under his watch at the agriculture ministry, a water crisis that experts largely attribute to corruption and mismanagement, intensified and led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. Syria became a net grain importer.

Limited reform

Safar’s government will replace the outgoing cabinet of Naji al-Otari, whose resignation Assad accepted on Tueday. Two days later the president made a series of limited reform pledges, including setting up committees to replace emergency law with anti-terrorism legislation, and address Kurdish grievances.

Ministers have little influence in Syria, where power is held by Assad, his family and the security apparatus. Safar will have no say in how authorities react to protests.

In Douma, a witness said ome 50 wounded arrived in secret police cars around midnight in Municipality Square. Secret police agents gave the names of 25 people in hospital with serious injuries, the witness said, adding that authorities had promised to deliver the bodies of those killed before noon.

Friday’s protest in Douma was one of several across the country. Witnesses said thousands took to the streets in major cities after Friday prayers, defying security forces who fired teargas and live ammunition and used batons to disperse them.

“Douma is boiling. Syria as a nation may no longer keep sitting idly and let a historic chance for freedom pass by,” one of the activists said of the area some 15 km (10 miles) north of the city, linking the capital to the northern countryside. In Deraa, where protests started before they spread to Damascus, the coast and areas in between, security forces dispersed a sit-in on Saturday at Serail Square and arrested at least 20 people, witnesses said.

“Our demands are same, same: freedom, freedom,” the protesters, who numbered 200 to 300, chanted.

More than 2,000 ethnic Kurds took to the streets of the northeastern city of Qamishli on Friday, despite a promise by Assad to look into granting citizenship to Kurds who are in Syria without Syrian passports, Kurdish sources said.

“Our demands are freedom, not just citizenship,” chanted the protesters, who were not confronted by security forces.

Syria’s second city Aleppo has been protest free, despite being inhabited mostly by Sunni Muslims who generally dislike the fact that the minority Alawite ruling elite have been amassing wealth and power widely seen as unchecked.

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