Syrian president orders release of protesters

AP News
Posted: Apr 14, 2011 4:14 PM
Syrian president orders release of protesters

Syria's president ordered the release Thursday of hundreds of detainees involved in a month of protests seeking to wrest political freedoms from one of the Middle East's most repressive governments.

The order, announced by state TV, signaled an attempt by President Bashar Assad to calm weeks of growing protest anger and pre-empt what is expected to be another day of large demonstrations on Friday.

Protests erupted in Syria a month ago and have steadily increased, with tens of thousands calling for sweeping political reforms from Assad's authoritarian regime. More than 200 people have been killed during in the government's crackdown, according to Syria's leading pro-democracy group.

The state TV announcement did not say how many protesters would be released or how many authorities were holding. It said the release order did not apply to those involved in "criminal acts" but that most of those taken into custody would be freed.

The country's new prime minister, meanwhile, announced his Cabinet two weeks after Assad fired the previous government in an earlier gesture that failed to contain the unrest.

Violence continued Thursday in a major port city where the government has waged a crackdown on several days of protests.

The state-run SANA news agency reported that snipers fired on a Syrian military patrol in Banias, killing one soldier and wounding another.

Syria's government and its state-run media have sought to cast the unrest as a foreign conspiracy perpetrated by armed gangs targeting security forces and civilians. Reform activists, however, say their movement is peaceful.

The SANA report had few other details about the shooting, and because of severe restrictions on independent journalists it was not possible to verify the information.

It is not clear who would have targeted the soldiers. A resident of the city said Thursday that they view the military as a protector against the internal security forces, which cracked down on crowds of protesters over the past several days with help from pro-government gunmen.

"We trust the army because they protect us, unlike the security forces who work to protect the regime," a resident from the area said.

The military was moving in to Banias Thursday to replace the feared secret police, a concession that resulted from a meeting between the city's dignitaries and a military general sent on behalf of the government.

About 50 members of the army's Special Forces drove into the city center in two buses and a truck and took positions close to the municipal building and the Central Bank branch, witnesses said.

Residents welcomed them with the Arab gesture of throwing rice and giving them olive branches as a sign of peace, witnesses said.

Activists said the military released dozens of detainees from the area and promised not to make arrest sweeps or raid homes. Electricity was restored after a three-day power cut, and troops eased road closures and other restrictions on movement.

The activists and residents spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.

In Washington, the Obama administration on Thursday accused Iran of helping Syria in its efforts to stamp out the protests. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said there is "credible information" that Iran is helping its closest Arab ally crack down on demonstrators.

Toner told reporters that Syria's government cannot be serious about real reform if it is turning to Tehran for help. He declined to outline the forms of assistance the U.S. believes Iran is providing Syria.

Syrian authorities made an effort to calm protests on another front. A Syrian official said a delegation from a southern province at the epicenter of the mass protests against the regime met with President Assad on Thursday.

The official said the meeting shows there are efforts to calm the situation in Daraa, an impoverished province where the uprising started last month. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The new Cabinet is being led by Prime Minister Adel Safar, a former agriculture minister seen as a respectable figure in a government that many accused of corruption.

The 30-member Cabinet has 16 new faces, including former intelligence Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ibahim al-Shaar, who will oversee internal security as interior minister. Also new is Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud whose job will be to run the state media. The defense and foreign ministers retained their posts.


Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report from Washington.