Syria’s Assad makes speech as protests mount

Syria’s Assad makes speech as protests mount
# 16 April 2011 21:56 (UTC +04:00)
Baku-APA. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad will make a speech on Saturday to the new government he named last week, the official news agency said, as protests against his rule intensified, APA reports quoting website.
Assad’s use of force and mass arrests, mixed with promises of reform and concessions to minority groups and conservative Muslims, have not placated protesters inspired by popular uprisings which toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.
He unveiled the new government on Thursday and ordered the release of some detainees, but the government has little power in the one-party state dominated by Assad, his family and the security apparatus.
The agency said Assad’s speech would be aired by Syrian television at 1500 GMT, after the new government swore the constitutional oath to him.
Demonstrations swept into the capital Damascus on Friday for the first time and thousands of protesters marched elsewhere.
Thousands of people protested in the southern city of Deraa on Saturday chanting: "The people want the overthrow of the regime," two witnesses said.
The demonstrators marched from the ancient Omari mosque in the old quarter of the city toward the main Saraya square, with scores carrying posters of those killed in weeks of protests, the witnesses told Reuters by phone.
More than 1,000 women marched on Saturday in the coastal city of Banias. "Not Sunni, not Alawite. Freedom is what we all want," the women chanted, according to a rights campaigner in the city, which has witnessed ethnic tension between its majority Sunni inhabitants and Alawite residents.
At the funeral on Saturday of a man shot by gunmen loyal to Assad in Banias, some mourners chanted: "Freedom, freedom ... the murderers must be held accountable," witnesses said.
Osama al-Sheikha, 40, an oil refinery worker, died from wounds sustained on Sunday. The father of four was among a group of men, some carrying sticks, guarding a mosque in Banias after mass protests against Assad’s 11-year rule. Loyalists, known as "al-shabbiha," fired at them with AK-47 rifles from speeding cars, witnesses said.
His death added to tension in the city, where the army has been deployed to contain the protests.
A deal was reached last week under which the army patrolled Banias in exchange for freeing people detained by security forces in the city and not harming residents. But a source in the city said the deal was not going smoothly, with residents opposing army deployment in a square that has been the main sites of the protests.
Assad, 45, from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, a secretive offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, has said the mass protests that began in the southern city of Deraa more than a month ago were a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife.
But the warning -- Assad’s father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, used similar language when he crushed a leftist and Islamist challenge to his iron rule in the 1980s -- has failed to quell the tide of protests.
Human rights activists say Assad should end decades-old emergency rule, allow peaceful protest and free all political prisoners to show he is serious about reform -- or risk provoking a stronger challenge to his rule. [nLDE73B1RG]
While some protesters have called for the "overthrow of the regime," the call has not yet been universally adopted at protests which have spread across Syria.
But activists say that may change because anger and frustration are rising in the country ruled with an iron fist by the Baath Party for nearly half a century.
In his first public remarks on the protests late last month, Assad made no reference to rescinding the emergency law or setting a timetable for reforms.
State news agency SANA said on March 31 the president had set up a committee to look into replacing the law with anti-terrorism legislation and said the committee would complete its work by April 25, but gave no details.
In Damascus, security forces used batons and teargas to prevent thousands of protesters marching from the suburbs from reaching the main Abbasside Square.
"I counted 15 mukhabarat (secret police) bus loads," one witness said. "They went into the alleyways just north of the square chasing protesters and yelling ’You pimps, you infiltrators, you want freedom? We will give it to you’."
An estimated 200 people have been killed during the demonstrations, mostly when security forces attacked protesters, according to rights campaigners.