Image: Syrian woman hold an anti-government protest
AP
Syrian women hold an anti-government demonstration in Banias, Syria, on Wednesday, April 13. Thousands of Syrian women and children holding white flags and olive branches blocked a main coastal highway Wednesday, demanding authorities release people detained during a crackdown on opponents of the regime, witnesses said. The crowd — unusual because it was dominated by women and young children —demanded the release of hundreds of men who have been rounded up in the northeastern villages of Bayda and Beit Jnad and surrounding areas in recent days.
msnbc.com news services
updated 4/14/2011 3:58:27 PM ET 2011-04-14T19:58:27

Syria's president ordered the release Thursday of hundreds of detainees involved in a month of protests seeking to wrest political freedoms from one of the Middle East's most repressive governments.

The order, announced by state TV, signaled an attempt by President Bashar Assad to calm weeks of growing protest anger and pre-empt what is expected to be another day of large demonstrations on Friday.

Protests erupted in Syria a month ago and have steadily increased, with tens of thousands calling for sweeping political reforms from Assad's authoritarian regime. More than 200 people have been killed during in the government's crackdown, according to Syria's leading pro-democracy group.

Story: A Syrian plan to attack protesters?

The state TV announcement did not say how many protesters would be released or how many authorities were holding. It said the release order did not apply to those involved in "criminal acts" but that most of those taken into custody would be freed.

In other developments:

  • Syria denied on Thursday U.S. allegations that Iran was helping it quell mass protests, after the United States said it believed it had evidence Tehran was helping Syrian authorities combat the unrest. "There is no truth to the announcement by the U.S. State Department about the presence of evidence of Iranian help to Syria in quelling the protests," state television quoted a Foreign Ministry official as saying. "If it has the evidence, why doesn't it announce it?" Earlier, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said there is "credible information" that Iran is helping its closest Arab ally crack down on demonstrators, but he declined to provide details.
  • About 300 people marched and chanted "freedom, freedom" in Sweida, a city in Syria's Druze heartland on Thursday, a witness said. Security police and irregular loyalists of Assad used sticks to disperse the protesters, the witness told Reuters. The protest was the first reported in the Druze region of Syria since unprecedented demonstrations against Assad's authoritarian rule started in the city of Daraa almost one month ago and spread elsewhere. They had assembled at a square named after Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, a revered Druze figure who led the Great Syrian Revolt against French rule from 1925 to 1927.
  • The state-run SANA news agency reported that snipers fired on a Syrian military patrol in Banias, killing one soldier and wounding another. The SANA report had few other details about the shooting, and because of severe restrictions on independent journalists it was not possible to verify the information. It is not clear who would have targeted the soldiers. A resident of the city said Thursday that they view the military as a protector against the internal security forces, which cracked down on crowds of protesters over the past several days with help from pro-government gunmen. The military was moving in to Banias Thursday to replace the feared secret police, a concession that resulted from a meeting between the city's dignitaries and a military general sent on behalf of the government. About 50 members of the army's Special Forces drove into the city center in two buses and a truck and took positions close to the municipal building and the Central Bank branch, witnesses said.

Syria's government and its state-run media have sought to cast the unrest as a foreign conspiracy perpetrated by armed gangs targeting security forces and civilians. Reform activists, however, say their movement is peaceful.

Activists said the military released dozens of detainees from the Banias area and promised not to make arrest sweeps or raid homes. Electricity was restored after a three-day power cut, and troops eased road closures and other restrictions on movement.

The activists and residents spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.

Syrian authorities made an effort to calm protests on another front. A Syrian official said a delegation from a southern province at the epicenter of the mass protests against the regime met with President Assad on Thursday.

The official said the meeting shows there are efforts to calm the situation in Daraa, an impoverished province where the uprising started last month. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The new Cabinet is being led by Prime Minister Adel Safar, a former agriculture minister seen as a respectable figure in a government that many accused of corruption.

The 30-member Cabinet has 16 new faces, including former intelligence Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ibahim al-Shaar, who will oversee internal security as interior minister. Also new is Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud whose job will be to run the state media. The defense and foreign ministers retained their posts.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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