Syria announced an amnesty on Thursday for scores of prisoners detained since a wave of protests erupted on March 15 as it unveiled a new cabinet to replace the one that quit last month.
The promised release of prisoners came amid a growing international outcry over the authorities’ crackdown on the demonstrations that have now spread from the provinces to the main cities of Damascus and Aleppo.
“The president has decided to free all those held against the backdrop of recent events, except those who committed criminal acts against the homeland and its citizens,” state television said, without giving numbers.
Human rights activists say scores of people have been rounded up since the demonstrations started, particularly in the protest centres of Daraa, south of the capital, and Latakia and Banias on the Mediterranean coast.
Recently appointed Prime Minister Adel Safar formed a new government, which was promulgated in a decree by President Bashar al-Assad, state television said.
Mohammed Naji Otri, who had been in office since 2003, resigned on March 29 and Safar, the then agricultural minister, was named on April 3 to replace him.
A day after a deal was struck for the army to restore order in the flashpoint city of Banias, snipers shot dead a soldier and wounded another, state news agency SANA said.
The killing came amid claims that several people freed after detention in the city charged they had been tortured.
“A group of snipers opened fire on soldiers as they were on patrol in Banias,” SANA said. “One soldier was killed and another wounded by this criminal gang,” it added, without identifying the attackers.
London-based human rights activist Rami Abdel Rahman said: “There was a deal on Wednesday between Syrian officials and city residents for the army to enter Banias imminently to restore order.
“Security agents will refrain from patrolling neighbourhoods to make arrests, and the hundreds of people arrested in Banias will be released,” Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), told AFP by telephone.
“Elements of armed gangs,” some of whom he said were close to security and intelligence services and “have caused unrest in order to create dissension, will be prosecuted”, he added.
And “security officers who failed to stop the unrest and brought Banias to the brink of a confessional war will be punished too,” Abdel Rahman said.
Banias is a Mediterranean port city home to Sunnis and Alawite Muslims, as well as Christians.
Security forces have encircled the city, 280 kilometres (175 miles) northwest of Damascus, since deadly clashes there on Sunday. Agencies