Assad in tentative moves to placate Syrian protesters

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The Independent Online

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has taken tentative steps towards defusing popular opposition to his 11-year rule by promising to investigate the deaths of protesters and to look into lifting a decades-old emergency law.

But the move comes a day after Mr Assad dashed hopes of reform when he delivered a defiant speech, blaming recent protests on "conspirators" in the pay of foreign states.

Mr Assad's latest pledges, which fall short of actual reform, appear aimed at buying time and are expected to do little to convince pro-democracy protesters that the President is any more committed to sweeping changes in the Arab state, one of the most autocratic in the region, than he was a day earlier.

Protesters are preparing for mass demonstrations later today, dubbing it Martyrs' Day, in a show of popular dissent that many fear will provoke the regime into a heavy-handed crackdown.

Since protests erupted in Syria two weeks ago, human rights groups estimate that more than 60 have been killed by loyalist forces in the towns of Deraa on the Jordanian border, and the port of Latakia, the flashpoints of the protests. Opposition activists say the death toll is nearer 200.

While Mr Assad has acknowledged that he has been slow to initiate reform, he has strongly hinted in recent interviews that he will not allow the democracy movement that is sweeping across the Middle East to dictate the pace.