Syrians protest anew after Assad reform gesture

by Reuters
Friday, 1 April 2011 13:54 GMT

* Protests break out in Damascus, Latakia, Banias

* Assad takes steps towards reforms, dismissed by critics

DAMASCUS, April 1 (Reuters) - Hundreds of Syrian protesters marched in several cities on Friday, rejecting a limited reform gesture by President Bashar al-Assad, and security forces beat demonstrators outside a Damascus mosque, witnesses said.

Civic activists told Reuters that protests broke out in the capital Damascus, Banias and the port city of Latakia against Assad's authoritarian rule after he stopped short of a clear commitment to meet popular demands for more freedoms.

Two weeks of unprecedented unrest in the tightly controlled Arab state, under monolithic Baath Party rule for almost 50 years, has left at least 61 people over the past two weeks.

Security forces and Assad loyalists attacked protesters with batons as they left the Rifaii mosque in the Kfar Sousseh district of Damascus after Friday prayers, a witness said.

At least six protesters were arrested and dozens where beaten as they made their way out of the mosque, the witness told Reuters by telephone from the mosque complex.

Residents said police also fired tear gas at protesters in the Damascus suburb of Douma.

Around 200 worshippers chanted slogans in support of the southern city of Deraa where the unrest kindled by pro-democracy uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world first erupted.

Online democracy activists had called for protests across Syria on "Martyrs' Friday", after a spate of pro-democracy demonstrations challenging Assad's 11 years in power.

Activists said security forces and Assad loyalists had earlier gathered in force around the mosques where protests resumed after Friday prayers.

In his first public appearance since the demonstrations began, Assad declined on Wednesday to spell out any reforms, especially the lifting of a 48-year-old emergency law that has been used to stifle opposition and justify arbitrary arrests.

On Thursday he ordered the creation of a panel that would draft anti-terrorism legislation to replace emergency law, a move critics have dismissed, saying they expect the new legislation will give the state much of the same powers.

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