25 Mar 2011

Pledges of change as protests mount in Syria

8:09 am on 25 March 2011

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has made an unprecedented pledge of greater freedom and more prosperity for Syrians as anger mounts following a crackdown on protesters that left at least 37 dead.

Officials promised to study the need for lifting the state of emergency, which have been in place since 1963 and give security forces sweeping powers.

Presidential spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban said the government would raise workers' wages, introduce health reforms, allow more political parties to compete in elections, relax media restrictions and establish a new mechanism for fighting corruption.

Ms Shaaban announced a similar package of reforms in 2005, but critics say they were never enacted.

In the southern city of Deraa, a hospital official said at least 37 people were killed on Wednesday when security forces opened fire on demonstrators.

About 20,000 people marched on Thursday in the funerals for nine of those killed, chanting freedom slogans and denying official accounts that infiltrators and armed gangs were behind the killings.

President Assad succeeded his father in 2000 and has tolerated little dissent.