Syrian president to address new cabinet

AP , Saturday 16 Apr 2011

Bashar Al-Assad's second speech comes as protests across the country enter second month

Syrian President Bashar Al-assad

Syria's president, Bashar Al-Assad, was expected to address the country's new government Saturday in a speech that will be broadcast nationally amid a growing protest movement now entering its second month, a Syrian official said.

The speech will be the second public appearance by President Assad since the protests began.

A new cabinet was formed Thursday as part of a wave of concessions aiming to stem an unprecedented protest movement demanding reform in Syria, one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

More than 200 people have been killed in the government crackdown on protesters, rights groups say.

The protests have forced Al-Assad to reach out to local leaders and offer overtures of reform — highly unusual steps for an authoritarian leader who keeps a tight grip on power with a small coterie of family and advisers.

A Syrian official told the Associated Press Saturday that Al-Assad would chair the first meeting of the new cabinet. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to give official statements to the media.

Assad has made only one public appearance since the demonstrations began, using a 30 March speech to blame unrest on a foreign conspiracy.
His reaction enraged many Syrians who hoped to see him announce serious reforms.

The protest movement has been steadily growing since, and swelled Friday to the largest and most widespread gatherings to date, according to witnesses and activists.

Tens of thousands or protesters made a bold march on the Syrian capital Friday, but security forces beat them back with tear gas and batons.

Syria's state-run news agency SANA said a Syrian policeman died after being beaten by protesters during a demonstration in the central city of Homs on Friday. SANA said the 32-year-old policeman was beaten with sticks and stones on his chest and head during the protest.

The violence in Homs and the policeman's death could not be independently confirmed. Syria has placed tight restrictions on media outlets and expelled foreign journalists.

On Friday, Syrian television for the first time showed video of protests in several cities — a sign that state-run TV cannot simply ignore the growing demonstrations.

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