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Under pressure, Syria says more freedom possible

By HUSSEIN MALLA and ZEINA KARAM
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 24, 2011; 3:39 PM

DARAA, Syria -- The Syrian government pledged Thursday to consider lifting draconian restrictions on political freedom and civil liberties in an attempt to quell a week-long uprising that protesters say has left dozens fatally shot by security forces.

The pledges appeared unlikely to satisfy demonstrators in the southern city of Daraa, where thousands have been calling for liberty, defying the crackdown as they take to the streets for funeral marches.

Presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban blamed the unrest on outside agitators but told reporters in the capital, Damascus, that President Bashar Assad's government would consider lifting a state of emergency, in place since 1963, that allows people to be arrested without warrants and imprisoned without trial.

She said the government was drafting a law that would allow political parties besides the ruling Baath party, and loosen restrictions on media. It is also raising salaries for public servants, giving them health insurance, and looking at better ways to fight corruption, she said.

State TV also said Assad had ordered the release of an unspecified number of detainees held in connection with the unrest. Activists say dozens of people have been arrested.

Shaaban said Assad had given orders for security forces not to open fire in Daraa even if attacked but "there were, maybe, some mistakes."

Media access to the marches in Daraa was restricted but an Associated Press reporter heard sporadic bursts of gunfire echoing through the city in the afternoon. Almost all shops were shuttered, the streets were virtually empty and soldiers and anti-terrorism police stopped people at checkpoints and manned many intersections - the heaviest security presence since the unrest began.

An activist who is in contact with residents of Daraa told The Associated Press that massive crowds shouted "Syria, freedom!" as they marched toward one of the agricultural hub's main cemeteries.

Inspired by the wave of pro-democracy protests around the region, the uprising in Daraa and at least four nearby villages has become the biggest domestic challenge since the 1970s to the Syrian government, one of the most repressive in the Middle East. Security forces have responded with water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition.

Abdul-Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian Human Rights League, said authorities had begun a campaign of detentions against activists, writers and bloggers in different parts of Syria.

Rihawi said the last to be detained was Mazen Darwish, a journalist who headed the independent Syrian Media Center. He said Darwish was summoned to a security office Wednesday noon and has not been seen since then. Also detained were well-known writer Loay Hussein and blogger Ahmad Hdaithi.

"These arrests will only increase tension," Rihawi said.

A statement posted Thursday on the Facebook page "The Syrian Revolution 2011" held Syrian authorities responsible for the violence and called on Syrians to hold protests in all provinces on Friday, which it dubbed "Dignity Friday."

A resident of Daraa who was reached by phone from Damascus said witnesses there reported seeing at least 34 people slain when police launched a relentless assault Wednesday on a neighborhood sheltering anti-government protesters, fatally shooting many in an operation that lasted nearly 24 hours.

He said at least 20 bodies were brought to Daraa National Hospital, and seven others taken to hospitals in neighboring areas. In the early evening, people from the nearby villages of Inkhil, Khirbet Ghazale and al-Harrah tried to march on Daraa but security forces opened fire and hit them with rifle butts as they approached. The resident said seven more were killed in that shooting. Hundreds were wounded, he said.

The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

"It was a very difficult, bloody day," he said. "There is a state of undeclared curfew in Daraa, whenever troops see four or five more people gathered they open fire," he said.

"Daraa today is like a ghost town, we are very scared," he said. "Everything is closed and the streets are empty, everywhere you look there's security."

Troops were in total control of the area around al-Omari mosque, where protesters had sought shelter and most of Wednesday's fighting occurred. Syrian officials escorted a small group of photographers to the mosque to show they were now in control.

There were no traces of fighting inside the mosque, except for a broken door to an office.

Elsewhere, the only evidence of fighting were rocks that littered the streets and the remains of tires that had been set on fire by protesters the day before.

Ahed Al Hendi, a Syrian dissident and Arabic program coordinator for the U.S.-based human rights organization cyberdissidents.org, said at least 45 people were killed on Wednesday.

The Washington-based Al Hendi said he is in daily contact with Syrians inside Daraa and provided a list with the names of the 45 killed. The report could not be independently confirmed.

Al Hendi said he expected more protests Friday.

Shabaan blamed media "exaggeration" for inflated figures and said 34 people had been killed in the weeklong conflict in the city.

She said investigations were ongoing, adding: "There are indications and evidence of foreign funding and arms that were smuggled and given to some people but I cannot say yet which party was behind it."

An official at the Daraa National Hospital told The Associated Press by telephone that the hospital received a large number of casualties Wednesday and was "overwhelmed" with wounded people. He declined to say how many people were dead or hurt, saying he was not authorized to give out numbers or talk to the press.

He said the hospital had not received any new casualties since Wednesday night and that Daraa was "very quiet this morning."

Videos posted by activists on Youtube and Twitter showed dead and wounded people lying on a street in Daraa, as heavy gunfire crackled nearby and people shouted in panic.

One video showed a man with a bloodied face, apparently shot in the head, raising his index finger and saying "There is no God but Allah" - the credo Muslims are required to say before they die.

The authenticity of the videos could not be independently confirmed.

© 2011 The Associated Press