SYRIA (BBC) — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad later ordered the release of everyone arrested during the “recent events”, state media said.
Assad’s regime have also pledged to introduce reforms to meet the demands of protesters, after days of violence in the southern city of Deraa, promised to study the need for lifting the state of emergency, in place since 1963, and bring to trial those suspected of killing several protesters in Deraa.
Presidential spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban blamed outside agitators for whipping up trouble, and denied that the government had ordered security forces to open fire on protesters.
But she said this “did not mean mistakes had not been made”.
“We should not confuse the behaviour of an individual, and the desire and determination of President Bashar al-Assad to move Syria to more prosperity,” she told a news conference in Damascus.
A committee would be set up to talk to “our brothers in Deraa” and bring to justice those responsible for killing protesters, Ms Shaaban said.
She also said the government would raise workers’ wages, introduce health reforms, allow more political parties to compete in elections, relax media restrictions and establish a new mechanism for fighting corruption.
Ms Shaaban announced a similar package of reforms in 2005, but critics say her pledges were never enacted.
Opposition groups reacted to the news conference immediately, telling Reuters news agency that the Deraa committee would do nothing to meet the aspirations of the people.
Reuters reported that dissidents in Syria and in exile dismissed the reforms, calling for the immediate scrapping of the state of emergency and freeing of thousands of political prisoners.
Abdul-Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian Human Rights League, later said authorities had released several activists including prominent journalist Mazen Darwish and writer Louay Husein.
Ms Shaaban accused international media, including the BBC and CNN, of exaggerating the crackdown on the protesters.
Estimates vary as to how many people were killed in Wednesday’s unrest.
Some reports quoting witnesses and activists have put the figure as high as 100; others have claimed about 15 people were killed.
The government said 10 people had died.
Security forces opened fired on crowds three times in Deraa on Wednesday, activists and witnesses said.
The first clashes took place in the early hours outside a mosque. Later, witnesses said crowds at a funeral for those who were killed were themselves fired on.
President Assad succeeded his father in 2000 and has tolerated little dissent.