Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, has formed a new cabinet two weeks after sacking the country’s government amid unprecendented protests against his rule.
Assad also ordered the release of hundreds of protesters detained over the past couple of weeks but said those who committed crimes “against the nation and the citizens” would remain in jail.
Adel Safar, a former agriculture minister, will lead the new government while veteran diplomat Walid al-Moualem remains as foreign minister, Syria’s state news agency reported.
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The announcement follows a deal allowing Syria’s army to enter the restive coastal city of Baniyas and claims by human rights groups that several people detained by security forces had been tortured.
The state-run SANA news agency reported that snipers fired on a Syrian military patrol in Baniyas, killing one soldier and wounding another.
“There was a deal on Wednesday between Syrian officials and city residents for the army to enter Baniyas imminently to restore order,” Rami Abdel Rahman, president of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), told AFP by telephone.
“Security agents will refrain from patrolling neighbourhoods to make arrests, and the hundreds of people arrested in Baniyas will be released,” he added.
“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.
Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Damascus, the capital, said people were waiting to see if the pledge to release all the political prisoners will be fulfilled.
“This is one of the demands of the protesters to release all the prisoners. Also people are watching how the government will be dealing with the protesters in tomorrow’s protests,” she said.
Our correspondent spoke of a celebratory scene as the Syrian army entered Baniyas.
“People were chanting the people and the army are one; they were throwing rice at them; they were welcoming and celebrating their arrival. The scene there is of a calming tension not escalation, “she said.
She added that “the residents of the town have been fearing these gunmen, four residents have been killed, one soldier was killed today and another one injured”.
“According to the government, two days ago nine soldiers were gunned down. So it is a highly volatile situation that the government is trying to contain, and it seems like the people of Baniyas are co-operating and engaging in the government efforts.”
Al Jazeera talks to to Marwan Kabalan, a professor of political science, about the latest situation in Syria
Security forces had encircled Baniyas, 280km 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.
Nine soldiers were killed when their patrol was ambushed outside the town, SANA news agency said.
Scores of people were also wounded in the unrest and hundreds reportedly arrested in Baniyas and the nearby village of Baida.
Assad on Thursday appealed for calm in a meeting with a delegation from the city of Daraa, which has been the focal point for anti-government protests.
Our correspondent said: “We spoke to members of the delegation that met with the … president, and they said that the meeting went well. But they won’t elaborate on whether a deal has been reached. It seems like there are some fine details that need to be worked out.”
Amin said the protesters had told the president to give them a deadline when their demands will be met.
“Some of their demands are specific to Daraa and others are to do with the rest of Syria [such as] more political freedom, the right to have peaceful protests and the release of all the prisoners that have been detained in the past three months.
“What the government wants is an end to the protests, and even if it acknowledges their right to protest it should be done peacefully. The government wants to put a stop to vandalism and attacks to public property.
“It seems from the people in Daraa that the government is seriously trying to contain [the situation in] Daraa because that is where it all started. If they manage to calm the situation in Daraa, the government believes it will be able to contain the situation throughout Syria.”