Syria’s government has approved a bill to rescind a decades-old emergency law and agreed to abolish the state security court, after weeks of pro-democracy protests and hundreds of deaths.
Yet the cabinet on Tuesday also approved a bill regulating demonstrations, the state news agency SANA reported, only hours after the interior minister imposed a total ban on political gatherings and after security forces fired on protesters in the city of Homs, killing four.
The ongoing repression prompted the United States to call on Syria to cease violence against protesters.
More than 2000 people defied the authorities and protested against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in the northern coastal city of Banias, witnesses said.
The bills approved on Tuesday will now go before parliament, which is not due to meet before May 2.
Earlier, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar told Syrians “to refrain from taking part in all marches, demonstrations or sit-ins under any banner whatsoever.”
With protests intensifying and spreading across the country, Assad delivered a speech to his new cabinet on Saturday and promised an end to the draconian emergency law, in force since 1963.
The law restricts many civil liberties, including public gatherings and freedom of movement, and allows the “arrest of anyone suspected of posing a threat to security”.
The Banias protest came after the authorities vowed on Monday to suppress what they called an “armed revolt” by Salafists, who espouse an austere form of Sunni Islam seeking a return to practices common in the early days of the faith.
Sheikh Anas al-Ayrut, a protest leader in Banias, spoke to protesters there hours after the interior ministry warning.
From Cyprus he said by phone that, addressing himself to the minister, “the same way you had the courage to call us Salafists, have the courage to admit that at Kordaha (where the Assad family comes from) there’s an armed group and tonnes of weapons that the Syrian army does not have.”
“Have the courage to admit that the ‘shabbiha’ (militias accused of firing on protesters) are part of the security forces and are working under them,” he said.
Protest leaders have previously said lifting the state of emergency would not be enough, and have demanded an end to the Baath party’s stranglehold on Syrian politics.
Repeal of the emergency law has been a central demand of reformists since protests began on March 15.
At least 200 people have been killed by security forces or plain-clothes police since the start of the protest movement, according to Amnesty International.
The deaths on Tuesday came in clashes in the central city of Homs, where some 20,000 people staged an overnight sit-in protest demanding Assad’s ouster.
In Washington, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner spoke of the overnight shootings.
“The violence there continues to raise serious concerns and it remains clear that the Syrian government needs to urgently implement broader reform and cease violence against peaceful protesters,” he said.
Assad had said in his speech that demonstrations are “allowed by the Syrian constitution” but that “there is no law in place to regulate them” and that “police must first be trained and equipped to handle them.
“The role of police is to protect demonstrators as well as public and private goods from all acts of sabotage, for which there will be no tolerance because people reject anarchy,” he added.
SANA on Monday quoted the interior ministry as saying: “The latest incidents have shown that… armed Salafist groups, particularly in the cities of Homs and Banias, have openly called for armed revolt.”
The ministry accused such groups of killing soldiers, policemen and civilians, and of attacking public and private property, and warned that “their terrorist activities will not be tolerated”.
The authorities said on Tuesday three army officers and three children were killed around Homs.
The main centres of unrest have been the agricultural province of Daraa in the south, the towns of Latakia, Banias and Homs, and the Damascus suburbs. Protests have spread further to the majority Kurdish regions in the north and for the first time to the Druze stronghold of Suwayda.