Mood changed in southern city after local delegation meets President Assad.
Syria’s president has said he expects his government to lift the decades-old emergency law next week.
Bashar al-Assad also pledged further reforms in a televised speech to his new cabinet after it was sworn in on Saturday.
“The juridical commission on the emergency law has prepared a series of proposals for new legislation, and these proposals will be submitted to the government, which will issue a new law within a week at the most,” he said.
“When the lifting of the emergency law package is issued, it should be firmly enforced. The Syrian people are civilised. They love order and they do not accept chaos and mob rule … We will not be lenient toward sabotage.”
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Lifting the 48-year-old state of emergency has been a key demand during a wave of protests over the past month.
The emergency law gives the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge and extends the state’s authority into virtually every aspect of Syrians’ lives.
However, there was concern that Assad will replace the emergency laws with equally harsh restrictions on public expression.
While pledging dialogue with unions and a number of reforms, he maintained that stability is his top priority.
“We do not want to be hasty. Any reforms have to be based on maintaining internal stability,” he said.
Assad said unemployment remains the biggest problems in the country and pledged that his new government will follow through on measures introduced by the former cabinet.
The official unemployment rate in Syria is about 10 per cent, but analysts say the double is a more realistic estimate.
The president said he realises there is a gap between citizens and the state institutions and that the government has to “keep up with the aspirations of the people”.
“The world is rapidly changing around us and we have to keep up with developments,” he said. “We have to focus on the demands and the aspirations of the people or there will be a sense of anger”.
‘Praying for martyrs’
Assad also said he was saddened by the loss of lives in the demonstrations and called those killed ‘martyrs’.
“We pray for their souls, whether they’re from the armed forces, the police or ordinary citizens. Investigations are continuing to find those responsible and hold them responsible.”
Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Damascus, described his speech as “much more conciliatory and realistic” than his speech on March 30 in which he blamed foreign conspirators for the unrest.
“He used key words that the protesters use. For example he spoke about people’s need for dignity, for more freedom, for justice. This will strike a chord with some of those who have been protesting on the streets, but not with all,” she said.
|The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights distributed this picture of a protest in Baniyas on Saturday [AFP]|
“He acknowledged the new reality, how the police and the security forces here are not trained for this kind of situations [demonstrations] and that they should be retrained and need new equipments. He’s saying peaceful protests are now parts of people’s lives and will be tolerated.”
The president said in is speech that after the pledged reforms, “there will no longer be an excuse to organise protests in Syria”.
A young Damascus resident told Al Jazeera that he feared more blood to be shed next Friday, the day of the week that has seen the largest protests in the past.
“The president talked about differentiating from now on between demonstrators and destroyers, which means people taking to the streets next Friday will be considered outlaws, and mukhabarat [secret police] will again be allowed to humiliate and torture pro-democracy Syrian protesters,” he said.
Rights groups say at least 200 people have been killed in a brutal crackdown since protests began.
Scores of people have been arrested, and US-based Human Rights Watch said on Friday that many of those released said they had been tortured while in detention.
Adel Safar, the prime minister, unveiled the new cabinet on Thursday, and it is expected to carry out broad changes. But the government has little power in the one-party state dominated by Assad, his family and the security apparatus.
Protests against Assad’s rule have intensified despite the use of force and mass arrests mixed with promises of reform and concessions to minority groups and conservative Muslims.
Thousands of people rallied in different cities on Friday, including in Daraa, Baniyas, Homs, and the Damascus suburb of Douma, in the most widespread protests so far .
Reuters reported that more than 1,000 women marched on Saturday in the coastal city of Baniyas in an all female pro-democracy protest.
“Not Sunni, not Alawite. Freedom is what we all want,” the women chanted, according to a rights campaigner quoted by the news agency. The city and surrounding villages have many Alawite residents, belonging to the same religious minority as President Assad.
Earlier in the day, thousands of mourners in the city attended the funeral of a man who witnesses said had died from his wounds after being shot by gunmen loyal to President Assad during protests on April 10.
Osama al-Sheikha, 40, was among a group of men armed with sticks guarding a mosque in Baniyas, where the army has since been deployed to contain protests. Pro-government gunmen shot at them with AK-47 rifles, witnesses said.
Protesters also marched in Daraa on Saturday, chanting “the people want to overthrow the regime”, according to Reuters.