Syria takes the initiative ahead of protests


DAMASCUS - A new governor has been appointed to the southern town of Daraa, the unexpected hub of the Syrian protest movement, the official SANA news agency reported Monday, while a Facebook group urged rallies in honour of those killed in the unrest.
President Bashar al-Assad, who is facing unprecedented domestic pressure as protesters demand greater freedoms and test his family's four-decade grip on power, has made a string of gestures hinting at change.
He appointed Mohammad Khaled al-Hannus governor of Daraa, an agricultural town near the border with Jordan, where dozens have been killed in more than two weeks of anti-regime demonstrations, the official SANA news agency said Monday.
Hannus replaces the much-reviled Faysal Kalthum, sacked on March 23 at the height of anti-regime demonstrations that left dozens dead and the governor's residence in flames.
The appointment, which was immediately dismissed as not enough by Syrian human rights activists, came one day after Assad asked former agriculture minister Adel Safar to form a new government.
"The residents of Daraa want more than a switch in governor -- they want the security services to stop oppressing them, the emergency law lifted, property rights respected, the detained freed and freedom of expression guaranteed," one activist said on condition of anonymity.
Residents of Daraa had accused the former governor of postponing the acquisition of property rights and preventing farmers from drilling water wells for irrigation.
Earier, a lawmaker from the region issued in parliament a scathing indictment against security forces, accusing them of opening fire "without mercy" and critising the head of state for not offering his condolences.
Activists estimate more than 130 people have been killed in clashes with security forces, mainly in the cities of Daraa and Latakia. Officials have put the death toll at closer to 30.
The commission charged with replacing Syria's emergency law with new legislation will conclude its work by Friday, a newspaper close to the government reported Monday.
"Sources within the commission tasked with studying the removal of the emergency law said it would, by Friday, finish formulating the necessary legislation to replace the emergency law," the Al-Watan newspaper said Monday.
Lifting Syria's emergency law, in place since the end of 1962, has been a central demand of protesters in their three weeks of pro-reform rallies held across the country.
Al-Watan said the commission's work is inspired by the "experience and legal frameworks of the United States, the United Kingdom and France, while taking into account both the dignity and safety of all citizens".
"Its conclusions will be publicly discussed and the commission will listen to all views before the government passes the proposed legislation."
The newspaper report was not officially confirmed.
President Bashar al-Assad had set April 25 as the deadline for the judicial commission to complete the task of drafting the new legislation to replace the emergency law.
The law, which paved the way for the ruling Baath party to declare a state of emergency when it took power in 1963, imposes restrictions on public gatherings and movements.
The law also authorises interrogation of any individual and surveillance of personal communication as well as official control of the content of newspapers and other media before publication.
Also on Monday, Al-Watan said that the committee investigating "events" in Daraa and the port city of Latakia, had questioned "many witnesses and will soon end its work".
A Facebook group has called for a "Week of the Martyrs" protest in Syria in honour of those killed in the security clampdown on pro-reform rallies that mobilised thousands on the last Muslim day of rest and prayer on Friday.
"The Week of the Martyrs will be a thorn on the regime's side," the organisers of Facebook group Syrian Revolution 2011 said, designating Tuesday as the first day of protests focused on coastal towns "far from the capital".
The group also called for a boycott of cell phone companies on Wednesday, a rally against the ruling Baath party on Thursday outside its Damascus headquarters, and countrywide demonstrations on Friday.
The Syrian football federation announced Monday that it had indefinitely postponed the domestic football league programme. 8 prisoners die in fire at Syria flashpoint town
Eight prisoners died and 17 were injured in a jail blaze Monday in the flashpoint Syrian town of Latakia started when an inmate torched his mattress, police cited by the state SANA news agency said.
"Twenty-five prisoners were hospitalised, eight of whom died of asphyxiation and serious burn injuries," said Latakia police chief General Kamal Fteih.
He added that the fire started around 5:00 am when a prisoner in a section of the prison housing murderers and drug traffickers set fire to a mattress and blankets.
"The prisoners had blocked their cell doors with their beds and mattresses and rescuers had to drill two holes in the walls to get to them," Fteih said.
Two policemen were also injured in the fire, he added, as they took part in the rescue operation.
Latakia, Syria's main port with a population of 450,000, is 350 kilometres (222 miles) northwest of Damascus, and has been the scene of unrest and pro-democracy demonstrations.
Syrian troops have deployed in force to Latakia, a religiously diverse city which, with the southern city of Daraa, is one of two main flashpoints in two weeks of increasingly violent protests.
The authorities have accused fundamentalists of seeking to incite sectarian strife in the city.
Fifteen people, military and civilians, were officially confirmed killed by gunfire involving snipers and drive-by shootings 10 days ago, and a further 185 injured.
There were also widespread reports that terror had gripped the city as snipers on rooftops and gangs of young men armed with knives and clubs caused mayhem in the scenic resort.
A London-based rights group close to the Muslim Brotherhood said last week that 25 people were killed by security forces in a "bloodbath" in Latakia last Wednesday as many took to the streets after President Bashar al-Assad addressed the nation but failed to deliver on the anticipated lifting of the unpopular emergency law, in force since 1963.
"The security forces of the Syrian regime in the city of Latakia are committing a massacre... in which more than 25 peaceful citizens have been killed," said the Syrian Human Rights Committee.
The rights monitor "called upon the international community to work to stop the bloodbath taking place in Latakia, and to stop all massacres being committed by the security forces and militia men of the Syrian regime."
The group, which has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, held the "Syrian regime and Syrian President completely responsible for every drop of blood spilt in Latakia and in other Syrian cities."