Syrian president offers greater freedom after forces kill 37


DERAA – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made an unprecedented pledge of greater freedom and more prosperity to Syrians on Thursday as anger mounted following a crackdown on protesters that left at least 37 dead.
As an aide to Assad in Damascus read out a list of decrees, which included a possible end to 48 years of emergency rule, a human rights group said a leading pro-democracy activist, Mazen Darwish, had been arrested. In the southern city of Deraa, a hospital official said at least 37 people had been killed there on Wednesday when security forces opened fire on demonstrators inspired by uprisings across the Arab world that have shaken authoritarian leaders.
Announcing the sort of concessions that would have seemed almost unimaginable three months ago in Syria, Assad’s 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 status were being killed.”
Assad, she said, would draft laws to provide for media freedoms and allow political movements other than the Baath party, which has ruled for half a century. Assad, who succeed his late father Hafez al-Assed in 2000, had, Shaaban said, decreed the drafting of a law for political parties “to be presented for public debate” and would strive above all to raise living standards across the country.
She said another decree would look at “ending with great urgency the emergency law, along with issuing legislation that assures the security of the nation and its citizens”. 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 had received the bodies of at least 37 protesters killed on Wednesday, a hospital official said.