Syria forms new government, gives amnesty to detained protestors
DAMASCUS - Syria is to free scores of people detained in a wave of protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, excluding only those convicted of "criminal acts", state television said on Thursday.
"The president has decided to free all those held against the backdrop of recent events, except those who committed criminal acts against the homeland and its citizens," the television said.
Recently appointed Syrian Prime Minister Adel Safar formed a new government on Thursday, which was promulgated in a decree by President Bashar al-Assad, state television announced.
Syria has been rocked since March 15 by unprecedented protests demanding political reforms and an end to a draconian emergency law in effect since 1963.
Mohammed Naji Otri, who had been in office since 2003, resigned on March 29 and Safar, the then agricultural minister, was named on April 3 to replace him.
Meanwhile, snipers shot dead a soldier and wounded another in Syria's flashpoint city of Banias Thursday, state news agency SANA said, a day after a deal was struck for the army to restore order there.
The killing comes nearly a month after nationwide protests broke out calling for greater freedom, political reform and the lifting of a draconian emergency law, which have been harshly suppressed by security forces.
It also comes amid claims that several people freed after detention in Banias alleged they were tortured.
"A group of snipers opened fire on soldiers as they were on patrol in Banias," SANA said. "One soldier was killed and another wounded by this criminal gang," it added, without identifying the attackers.
Earlier Thursday, London-based Syrian rights activist Rami Abdel Rahman said "there was a deal on Wednesday between Syrian officials and city residents for the army to enter Banias imminently to restore order."
"Security agents will refrain from patrolling neighbourhoods to make arrests, and the hundreds of people arrested in Banias will be released," Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), said.
"Elements of armed gangs," some of whom he said were close to security and intelligence services and "have caused unrest in order to create dissension, will be prosecuted", he said.
And "security officers who failed to stop the unrest and brought Banias to the brink of a confessional war will be punished too," Abdel Rahman said.
Banias is a Mediterranean port city home to Sunnis and Alawite Muslims, as well as Christians.
Security forces have encircled Banias, 280 kilometres (175 miles) northwest of Damascus, since deadly clashes there on Sunday.
Government forces killed at least four people and wounded 17 when they strafed a residential area of the town with gunfire for hours, witnesses said.
And nine soldiers were later killed when their patrol was ambushed outside the town, the official SANA news agency said.
Scores of people were also wounded in the unrest and hundreds reportedly arrested in Banias and the nearby village of Baida.
And the official SANA news agency said several people, including a soldier, three rebels and an undetermined number of "innocent civilians," were killed in Banias on Tuesday.
More than 5,000 women gathered on the coastal road between Tartus and Banias Wednesday to demand the release of those arrested.
The London-based SOHR said in a statement that hundreds of those arrested had been released on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
But it added "some of those freed said they had been horribly tortured by their jailers. Others said they had never taken part in any demonstration or engaged in any kind of political action and did not know why they had been arrested."
"The SOHR denounces in the strongest possible terms the fact that the people of Banias have been subject to hideous acts of torture."
It called for the appointment of an independent commission composed of lawyers "to hear evidence in cases of torture and to bring the perpetrators to justice."
The law imposes restrictions on public gatherings and movements, authorises the detention and interrogation of any individual, as well as the surveillance of personal communications and media censorship.
Reliable casualty figures are impossible to obtain in Syria, but Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that at least 130 people had been killed up until then.
Officials have put the death toll at closer to 30 and blamed the violence on armed groups and foreigners seeking to divide the ethnically and religiously diverse country.
In other developments, Sweden, Denmark and Norway all advised their citizens on Thursday not to travel to Syria.
Denmark also said it would halt all deportations of Syrians who have been denied asylum back to Syria because of the security situation.
Syria's ambassador to Beirut urged Lebanese authorities on Thursday to take legal action following allegations a deputy was funding and arming protesters in Syria.
Ali Abdel Karim Ali "requested Lebanon's authorities and judiciary take action ... in order to preserve brotherly ties between the two countries," according to the transcript of an interview with Hezbollah's Intiqad website.
Ali's comments came a day after Syrian state-run television aired "testimonies" of three people saying they had received funds and weapons from a Sunni Lebanese lawmaker to fuel a wave of protests against the ruling Baath regime.
Anas al-Kanj, who presented himself as the head of an "armed terrorist group," said on camera that he received money and arms from MP Jamal al-Jarrah through an intermediary, Ahmad al-Uda.
Uda also appeared in a pre-recorded segment, identifying himself as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Syria.
"The Syrian ambassador confirmed that interference by some Lebanese parties in the events in Syria and the confessions aired on television are very dangerous and could harm ... brotherly ties between Lebanon and Syria," Intiqad's transcript read.
Ali confirmed that agreements signed between Lebanon and Syria dictated that the judiciary should automatically take action in the case. However, he stopped short of openly accusing Jarrah of inciting dissent in Syria.
Jarrah, a member of outgoing premier Saad Hariri's Sunni Future Movement, has denied the allegations.
"We have neither the desire nor the capacity or means to interfere in Syrian affairs. I neither know Ahmad al-Uda nor have any ties to him," he said.
Damascus was forced to pull its troops from Lebanon under massive international pressure following the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, Saad's father, after a 29-year deployment.
Lebanon and Syria agreed to establish diplomatic ties in October 2008, for the first time since their independence 60 years ago.