|Bashar al-Assad is seeking to stem protests against one-party Baath rule [Reuters]
Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, has issued a decree granting nationality to thousands of Kurds living in the eastern al-Hasaka region as part of efforts to ease resentment over nearly five decades of strict Baathist rule.
It was not immediately clear how many would get nationality, but the announcment on Thursday is due to affect at least 150,000 Kurds currently registered as foreigners as a result of a 1962 census in the region.
But Kurdish leader Habib Ibrahim said that Kurds would press their non-violent struggle for civil rights and democracy to replace autocratic rule despite Assad's decision.
"Our cause is democracy for the whole of Syria. Citizenship is the right of every Syrian. It is not a favour. It is not the right of anyone to grant," Ibrahim, who heads the Democratic Unity Kurdish Party, told the Reuters news agency.
State television also said that Assad had fired the governor of Homs province, one of the areas affected by recent protests calling for greater freedoms. Replacing the governor was one of the main demands of protesters last week.
In another move to appease the ethnic Kurds, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 48 Kurds were released on Tuesday, more than a year after they were arrested in the eastern city of Raqqa.
The Syrian leader also met provincial leaders from the Kurdish east of the country earlier in the week to listen to their demands, the official news agency reported.
Assad cracked down on ethnic Kurds, who make up about 10-15 per cent of Syria's 20 million people, after they launched violent demonstrations against the state in 2004.
Recent popular protests have shaken mainly Sunni Muslim Syria for nearly three weeks, with demonstrators demanding an end to emergency law and one-party rule by the Baath Party.
The pro-democracy protests first erupted in the southern city of Daraa, where many Sunni Muslim tribes resent the power and wealth accumulated by the Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shia Islam.
Syria's ruling hierarchy has not tolerated any dissent and has used emergency laws to justify arbitrary arrests, including those of other minorities such as Kurds who say they are discriminated against.
In a move to mollify conservative Muslims, Syria also lifted on Wednesday a ban on teachers wearing the full face veil and ordered the closure of the country's only casino.