Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Syria's al-Assad leaves state of emergency in place

(CNN) -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad defied expectations Wednesday when he made no mention of lifting a state of emergency in a national address.

He acknowledged that Syrians want reform and that the government has not met their needs in a rambling 45-minute speech to the National Assembly, but he made few concrete promises after weeks of anti-government demonstrations that have left 73 people dead, according to Human Rights Watch.

Al-Assad spoke a day after the Syrian cabinet resigned amid an unusual wave of unrest across the nation. Simmering tensions heightened after the speech in Damascus when a woman approached the president's car and waved her hand at its occupants.

Several people walking alongside the car -- apparently security officers -- took hold of and restrained the woman as others in the crowd surged forward.

An image of the confrontation aired on state-run Syrian TV, but the screen faded to black within seconds. The woman's intentions were not immediately clear.

In his speech, al-Assad said Syria's government will not fall like a domino in a string of Arab revolutions, saying that instead Syria had kicked the dominoes of the "conspirators" and that they had fallen instead.

Al-Assad also blamed unrest in his country on "enemies... working daily and scientifically to undermine the stability of Syria." He said they were "stupid in choosing to target Syria."

He referred obliquely to the anti-government demonstrations, calling them "a test of our unity."

But al-Assad said, "we can't say that everybody who went out was part of the conspiracy. That wouldn't be accurate."

Legislators in the People's Assembly cheered the president when he arrived to begin the speech.

The state-run SANA news agency had reported that the president's speech would "tackle the internal affairs and the latest events in Syria," and "reassure the Syrian people."

Syria's emergency law has been in place nearly 50 years. Reem Haddad, a spokeswoman for the Syrian Information Ministry, has told CNN that "it will be lifted," but she could not say when.

The law allows the government to make preventive arrests and override constitutional and penal code statutes. In effect since 1963, it also bars detainees who haven't been charged from filing court complaints or from having a lawyer present during interrogations.

Tuesday, tens of thousands of pro-government demonstrators poured onto the streets of Damascus. State media reported a much higher national turnout.

"Millions of people around Syria rallied in the cities' main squares to express loyalty to homeland and underline its national unity," SANA reported. "Syrian people gathered on Tuesday to stress the importance of maintaining security and stability and to support the massive reform program led by President Bashar al-Assad."

Tuesday's pro-government rally followed violent clashes between protesters and security forces in the cities of Daraa and Latakia in recent days.

Syria is the latest in a string of Arabic-speaking nations beset with discontent over economic and human rights issues. Syria's discontent is centered in Daraa, a southern city in the impoverished country's agricultural region, where security forces and anti-government protesters have sporadically clashed for nearly two weeks.

Many demonstrators at the pro-government rally in Damascus held posters of the president. Others waved Syrian flags, while some painted their faces and chests in national colors.

Crowds filled the square in front of the Central Bank and jammed all roads leading to it, aerial pictures on state TV showed.

There were also pro-government rallies in the cities of Aleppo, Hama and Hasaka, the broadcaster said.

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