Syria’s Assad swears in new government

President chairs cabinet’s first session as state media says one policeman was killed in Friday’s clashes.

Thousands protested in cities across Syria on Friday

The Syrian president has sworn in the country’s new government amid reports by the state media that a policeman was killed when forces dispersed mass pro-democracy protests in several cities.

Bashar al-Assad is chairing the first session of Syria’s new council of ministers on Saturday, and will then deliver a speech to be broadcast on national television later.

Adel Safar, the prime minister, unveiled the new cabinet on Thursday, and it is expected to carry out broad changes, including lifting the emergency law and replacing it with new anti-terrorism legislation.

Assad had earlier promulgated the new government in response to growing pro-democracy protests.

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.

‘Policeman killed’

Following nationwide protests on Friday, Syrian state media reported that a policeman had been killed while dispersing pro-democracy protesters in the central city of Homs.

“The policeman was killed during a demonstration in Homs after Friday prayers. He was beaten with sticks and stones,” the SANA news agency reported on Saturday, adding that he would be buried later in the day.

Baton-wielding police had attempted to break up a protest of thousands in the city.

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Clashes between security forces and protesters were also seen on Friday in the area around Damascus, the Syrian capital.

Security forces moved in to disperse protesters marching towards central Damascus from the suburb of Douma, witnesses said.

“I counted 15 mukhabarat [secret police] busloads. They [were] chasing protesters and yelling ‘You pimps, you infiltrators, you want freedom? We will give it to you!’,” a witness told the Reuters news agency.

Haitham al-Maleh, an activist and lawyer, told Al Jazeera that protesters were attacked by men with “pistols and sticks” near Abasyeen Square.

Elsewhere in Damascus, in the Barzeh district, violence reportedly erupted when dozens of armed men in plainclothes surrounded about 250 protesters rallying in front of the Salam mosque.

Al Jazeera’s Cal Perry, in Damascus, reported on Saturday that citizens now appear to be dividing into two distinct groups.

“What seems to be happening is that instead of calls for continued reform, we’re now seeing two camps: a pro-Assad camp and an anti-Assad camp. And what seems to be happening is that the conversation and the debate is not about reforms anymore. It’s now about the man, the president himself. Some people want him to stand down,” he said.

“The president does maintain a broad base of support in this country, and what seems to be happening is his supporters are arming themselves, whether it’s with sticks, or batons or actual … guns. They seem to be taking to the streets and putting down many of these protests, especially the ones that took place in the capital.”

Peaceful protests

Thousands again demonstrated on Friday in the southern city of Daraa, which has been the focal point of unrest in the country.

Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin said security forces were not visible in the city, and that the protesters were being allowed to hold their demonstration.

Rula Amin reports from Daraa on Friday

“They were marching carrying olive branches saying ‘Peaceful’ [and] ‘Freedom’. Some were demanding the toppling of the regime, others were saying they just want reforms,” she reported from Daraa.

Amin said residents were satisfied with President Assad’s promise to a delegation from the city that their specific demands, including the lifting of emergency law, would be met as early as next week.

Protests were also held in other cities including Latakia, Deir ez-Zor and Baida on Friday.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, urged Syria to halt its deadly crackdown on protesters and respond to the democratic hopes of its people.

“We call on the Syrian authorities once again to refrain from any further violence against their own people,” she told reporters in Berlin after a NATO meeting, referring to the protesters’ demands as “legitimate”.

“It is time for the Syrian government to stop repressing their citizens and start responding to their aspirations.”

Rights groups say at least 200 people have been killed since protests began last month.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies


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