Syria removes police chief of restive city

(Reuters) – The chief of security police in the Syrian city of Banias has been dismissed, a rights group said on Wednesday, after five civilians were killed in a crackdown against pro-democracy protests there last week.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing sources in Damascus, named the officer as Amjad Abbas. Security forces had sealed off the city last weekend after demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad and an attack by irregular forces loyal to Assad on people guarding a Sunni mosque.

Inspired by uprisings across the Arab world, demonstrators have taken to the streets for more than a month demanding greater freedoms, undaunted by a security crackdown.

Rights groups, which say more than 200 have been killed since the unrest started a month ago, have called for independent investigations into the actions of security forces.

The latest move seemed another attempt to mollify protesters, who rejected appeals by authorities to stop demonstrating and ignored a concession by the government which approved legislation on Tuesday to end the state of emergency in force for the last 48 years.

The Observatory said Banias residents had identified Abbas, the fired officer, as one of the security officers seen beating a villager in the nearby town of Baida, according to a video.

Along with the bill on emergency law, the newly appointed cabinet also approved legislation that requires Syrians to seek permission from the state before they demonstrate.

DEFIANT PROTESTS

Hours earlier, the Interior Ministry had called on citizens to refrain from protesting at all. Activists said the ministry statement and the fact that authorities on Tuesday night arrested a leftist opposition figure suggested the government’s move to lift emergency law will not halt repression.

Defiant protests continued overnight, including in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani where protesters called for freedom and for the “downfall of the regime,” the rallying cry of uprisings inTunisia and Egypt.

There were also sit-ins in Jabla on the coast, a women’s rally in Barzeh in Damascus, and a candlelight procession in Tel near the capital overnight.

In Homs, soldiers and irregular forces loyal to Assad dressed in black patrolled the route between two central squares, witnesses said. Shops stayed closed in protest over 20 pro-democracy protesters shot dead by security forces in the city since Monday, they said.

In Syria’s second city, Aleppo, Assad’s irregular forces broke up a small demonstration at the city’s university, beating several students and arresting 37, a rights activist said.

The State Department said the new law requiring permits to hold demonstrations made it unclear if the end of emergency rule would make for a less restrictive government.

A semi-official newspaper quoted an official source saying Assad would issue the decrees confirming the government decisions, which also include the dissolving of supreme state security court, on Wednesday.