Reporting from Beirut — Syrian President Bashar Assad made conciliatory gestures Thursday in an attempt to quell the outrage fueling anti-government protests across the country, but as night fell witnesses reported clashes near a key southern city as activists renewed their call for widespread protests on Friday.
Two weeks after accepting the resignations of top government officials, Assad announced a Cabinet lineup that included some new figures in key posts and ordered the release of all prisoners arrested in the last month, except those implicated in "criminal acts against the homeland and its citizens."
Assad and his aides also met with community leaders from the southern city of Dara and the city of Baniyas on the northern coast, where there have been sustained anti-government protests.
The president received a delegation from Dara, where protests first erupted over a month ago. As of Thursday night, no details were available about the meeting.
Just hours later, eyewitnesses in the village of Enkhil outside Dara reported clashes between residents and security forces after an arrest raid in which several people were allegedly killed.
Witnesses in Dara said 2,000 protesters remained outside the Omari mosque demanding an end to the regime with slogans such as "Syria, freedom and Bashar out!" and "Revolt! Revolt, Hawran, until the regime falls," referring to the province where Dara is located.
An earlier meeting between government officials and representatives of Baniyas resulted in the release of hundreds of detainees and the deployment of the army throughout the city. State media, however, reported that one soldier was killed and another wounded by sniper fire.
Human rights groups say as many as 200 people have been killed by Syrian security forces since the protest movement began. Authorities have sought to cast the violence as the result of armed gangs and foreign infiltrators. Many eye witnesses reported seeing armed groups in civilian clothes in clashes with security, but some have accused the government of sponsoring the gangs.
Some activists said they were not satisfied with the government's actions. They complained that the new Cabinet lineup represented merely a reshuffling of the old guard. One source pointed to the appointment of the new interior minister, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ibrahim Shaar, the former head of military police who was in charge of Tadmur Prison at the time of a massacre June 27, 1980.
A resident of the village of Baida, where several people were killed and scores arrested in recent days, said the government's overtures were not credible.
"Many people are still missing or in detention," the resident said. "Tomorrow we will protest again, God willing."
According to accounts collected by human rights activists working surreptitiously in Syria, many of those in detention were tortured. Amateur video uploaded to the Internet showing young men covered in welts and bruises appeared to corroborate such accounts.
"[Security] took us to an underground jail where they beat us until we blacked out," said one detainee, according to a written account provided by a rights activist. "My nose was broken, my shoulder dislocated, and my face completely bruised from being kicked in the face."
The next day, the detainee said, he was handed over from security to the army, where he was also beaten.
"They kept telling us, 'You are traitors, you cannot topple the regime.'"
Former Syrian lawmaker George Jabbour said any potential violations would be investigated by the recently announced government commission created for that purpose. He accused the foreign press of exaggerating the scale of the violence.
"The terms of jail are very light if you compare them with the days of Hafez al Assad," Jabbour said, referring to the late Syrian president and father of Bashar Assad. "There are demands for political freedom and freedom of information and these are understandable. I am sure that [Bashar Assad] is a reformer."
Lutz is a special correspondent.