Syrian protesters keep up pressure

Anti-government activists to continue rallies and strikes despite cabinet approval for bill to scrap emergency laws.

Several thousand people have gathered in the central Syrian city of Homs, keeping up the pressure on Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, despite apparent political concessions.

Also about 4,000 university students from Daraa and surrounding areas protested near the city’s al-Omari Mosque, Associated Press news agency reported.

Wednesday’s development came despite a government warning to residents to stay at home, and a day after protesters began a general strike and vowed to continue demonstrations in the city’s Clock Square.

Locals described Homs, Syria’s third largest city with a population of 1.5 million people, as looking “like a war zone”, with all shops and businesses closed for the strike.

Syrian security forces opened fire and used teargas on Monday night to disperse an anti-government sit-in.

Also on Wednesday, activists reported that Syrian authorities had arrested an opposition figure, Mahmuod Issa, in Homs.

“A patrol of the political security services arrested [government] opponent Mahmud Issa on Tuesday night in Homs after he gave an interview to Al Jazeera,” Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

In his interview, Issa spoke of the death of General Abdo Khodr al-Tellawi in Homs and asked Syrian authorities to investigate and arrest the perpetrators.

“Actions speak louder than words”

Mark Toner, US State Department Spokesman

The official SANA news agency said on Tuesday that “armed criminal gangs … came upon General Abdo Khodr al-Tellawi, his two children and his nephew, and killed them in cold blood” and “mutilated” their bodies.

Mark Toner, the US State Department spokesman, expressed concern about Issa’s arrest, noting its timing only a day after Assad’s speech promising reform and the repeal of Syria’s emergency law.

“This arrest today calls into question the Syrian government’s intentions with respect to real reform, and indeed their desire to meet the demands of the Syrian people,” Toner told reporters.

“Actions speak louder than words.”

Protests planned

Amid the unrest, activists in the southern city of Daraa said on Wednesday they were preparing for another day of protests on Friday.

“We are preparing for a huge demonstration on Friday,” said an activist in Daraa, where anti-government protests first erupted last month and later spread nationwide.

Activists said dozens of students demonstrated at the medical faculty at Aleppo University on Wednesday morning but were dispersed by security forces and there are reports of more detentions.

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Suhair Atassi, a prominent rights activist in Damascus, said 37 students were arrested and beaten in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city.

Meanwhile, the head of the security police in the coastal city of Baniyas has been removed from his post, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an independent rights group.

The group named on Wednesday the officer as Amjad Abbas.

It said it hoped “that this positive step will be followed through by holding accountable members of the security apparatus who have fallen short in their duty to guard security and protect citizens”.

Residents and a rights activist in Baniyas said at least five civilians had been killed in the coastal city by armed men loyal to Assad since pro-democracy protests erupted last month.

Fearing trouble in the days to come, Britain has upgraded warning about the unrest and country’s foreign office asked its citizens to consider leaving Syria.

In a statement on Wednesday, the UK foreign office said it had changed its advice “in light of the deterioration in the security situation in Syria”.

Tensions persist in many Syrian cities despite the approval given by the cabinet on Tuesday to a bill to abolish emergency laws, which gave the government a free hand to arrest people without any charges for the last 48 years.

The bill will need to be approved by parliament, which is not expected to meet until May 2, and signed by Assad.

The emergency laws will be replaced with new legislation which critics fear will be equally repressive, and the interior ministry has passed a law stating that citizens must obtain permission to demonstrate.

Emergency-law decision

The lifting of the emergency law had been a key demand in the anti-government protests, which began a month ago in Syria.

Discussing the topic on Wednesday, Chris Phillips, a London-based analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, a think-tank, said Assad “is choosing to sack one or two figures here and there”.

“I understand that police chief in Baniyas was sacked while the governors of Homs and Daraa were also removed after violence,” he told Al Jazeera.

“So, there is at the moment a tendency for the president to cherrypick individual members of security forces or members of administration to be the scapegoat.

“However, it’s not institutionalised as there’s not a set system for accountability for either members of government or members of security system, which is what people complain about.

“What people seem to be wanting is a different kind of government, a government that’s accountable to its population, which is completely new. It has not taken place since the Baath party took to power in 1963.

“In my opinion the regime is continuing with the approach of stick and carrot, offering a few slight superficial tactical changes. They are still trying to hold on to as much real power as they possibly can while dissuading the protesters from coming out either through slight concessions or through quite serious force.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies