DAMASCUS Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, facing a wave of protests demanding greater freedoms, took steps on Thursday towards addressing grievances including lifting emergency law and granting disenfranchised Kurds rights.
Assad, who drew international criticism for failing to spell out reforms in his first public comments on Wednesday since unrest swept Syria, also ordered an investigation into protest deaths in the flashpoint city of Deraa and the port of Latakia.
Inspired by popular revolts elsewhere in the Arab world, the unrest has presented the gravest challenge to Assad's 11-year rule in Syria, which maintains an anti-Israel alliance with Shi'ite Iran and supports militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas.
It was doubtful that Assad's gestures would soon defuse the unprecedented outbreak of public discontent in one of the Middle East's most tightly controlled countries.
Online activists have called on protesters to demonstrate across the country on what they have dubbed the "Friday of Martyrs" until their demands for democratisation are met.
In the past, Assad has set up committees to investigate contentious issues but no announcements were made after the initial formation. Officials have repeatedly said a draft law on allowing political parties and lifting emergency law were on the agenda of Assad's Baath Party, but they never materialised.
Repealing emergency law, in force since Assad's Baath Party took power in a coup nearly 50 years ago, has been a central demand of protests in which 61 people have been killed.
Critics, diplomats and Syrian officials doubted Assad would abolish the omnipresent law, used to snuff out any opposition, justify arbitrary arrest and give free rein to the security apparatus, without replacing it with similar legislation.
The state news agency SANA said on Thursday the panel would study and prepare "legislation including protecting the nation's security and the citizen's dignity and fighting terrorism, paving the way for lifting the emergency law".
It said the committee would complete its work by April 25, but did not elaborate.
Syrian officials in Assad's inner circle had said last week a decision had been taken to abolish emergency legislation.
But Assad, in a speech to parliament on Wednesday, made no reference to rescinding the law, or set a timetable for mooted reforms including legislation on political parties, media freedom and fighting corruption.
"BURY THE ISSUE"
The United States dismissed Assad's long awaited speech, saying it failed to meet expectations built up by his aides last week at the height of the protests when they disclosed that he would announce a clear programme of reform.
"When you set up a committee in our part of the world, it means you want to bury the issue," said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut.
"He's buying time".
A leading Syrian opposition figure told Reuters in an interview this week the British-educated president would replace the law with legislation couched as anti-terrorist measures.
"The law could include a clause against any group or person carrying out actions that would affect national security. And it would be under the guise of terrorism," Maamoun al-Homsi told Reuters from exile in Canada on Monday.
Most of the protests have occurred in the southern city of Deraa, where unrest came to a head after police detained more than a dozen school children for scrawling graffiti inspired by popular uprisings across the Arab world.
Syrian officials have also said 12 people were killed in clashes they blamed on "armed elements" in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia last week.
The panel tasked with investigating the deaths of civilians and security forces has the right to "call upon whomever it sees fit to complete the appointed task and has the right to demand any information or documents from any party", SANA said.
Assad also formed a panel to "solve the problem of the 1962 census" in the eastern region of al-Hasaka. The census resulted in 150,000 Kurds who now live in Syria being denied nationality.
Ethnic Kurds, who make up 10-15 percent of Syria's population of 20 million, mounted violent demonstrations against the state in 2004 that resulted in scores of deaths.
Officials subsequently promised to address their demands to grant citizenship. The Kurds also complain of discrimination because they are unable to teach Kurdish in schools and are not allowed to set up Kurdish radio stations.
Syria has intensified a wave of arrests of Kurdish activists since the January-February uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Media operate in Syria under severe restrictions. Syria expelled Reuters' Damascus correspondent last week and has been holding a second foreign correspondent since Tuesday. Two other foreign Reuters journalists were expelled and a Reuters photographer, a Syrian national, has been missing since Monday.
(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Writing by Dominic Evans and Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)