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Under pressure, Syria's president buys time with investigations

Syria's president Bashar al-Assad is taking measures to head off increased unrest. He has announced plans to investigate protester deaths and whether to lift emergency law.

pro-assad protesters carrying a banner

Assad says he'll look into protester deaths

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday set up a committee to investigate the deaths of protesters who were killed in clashes in the cities of Daraa and Latakia, broadcaster Al Arabiya reported.

He also said he was setting up a committee to examine the possibility of lifting a decades-old emergency law in the country.

Protesters dead in the streets

Human Rights Watch says at least 73 protesters have been killed in clashes with security forces after they took to the streets demanding greater freedom in the country. The protests are entering their third week.

A protester sets a phone booth ablaze

Protesters have been in the streets for going on three weeks

The cities of Daraa and Latakia have emerged as the focal points of protests. Syria has been in a "state of emergency" for close to 50 years.

"Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has charged the head of the judges' council with forming a committee to begin an investigation, effective immediately, into the deaths of civilians and troops in the governorates of Daraa and Latakia," read a report on the state-run news agency SANA.

Assad, who has ruled Syria for the past 11 years, is under unprecedented domestic pressure amid a spread of uprisings against repressive regimes in the Arab World. Protesters are demanding greater freedoms in the country and have called for more rallies across Syria after weekly Muslim prayers on Friday.

Examining the 'state of emergency'

Earlier Thursday, Assad said he had set up a committee to look into replacing the decades-old emergency law with anti-terrorism legislation.

News agency SANA said the committee would complete its work by April 25, but gave no further details, according to news agencies. Emergency law has long been used to kill any opposition to the monolithic Baath Party rule.

Disappointing speech

The announcements came after a speech on Wednesday when Assad failed to make any reference to rescinding the law, or setting a timetable for suggested reforms.

Many Western observers were scornful of Assad's speech, saying it failed to meet hopes or expectations for meaningful action. And Thursday's announcement was unlikely to convince sceptics as well.

"When you set up a committee in our part of the world it means you want to bury the issue," Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut, told Reuters news service. "He's buying time."

Author: Jennifer Abramsohn (dpa/Reuters/AFP)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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