Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made an unprecedented pledge of greater freedom and more prosperity amid mounting anger after a crackdown on anti-government protesters that left at least 37 dead.
An official told Reuters on Thursday that the main hospital in the southern Syrian city of Daraa had received the bodies of 37 protesters after clashes between security forces and protesters.
Witnesses earlier said that security forces had opened fire on hundreds of youths at the northern entrance to Daraa on Wednesday afternoon, in escalating violence between government forces and anti-government protesters.
On Thursday, thousands of people gathered in protest at funerals in Daraa despite the crackdown by Syrian security forces, according to the New York Times.
Seven were reportedly killed when Syrian government forces stormed a mosque in Daraa early in the day. The government, however, blamed the violence on an "armed gang," according to Al Jazeera, quoting the state-run SANA news agency.
The protesters were calling for political freedoms and an end to corruption and had said earlier that they were going to remain in the mosque until their demands were met. According to several reports, they were armed.
Protests have been challenging the rule of Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000, for the past six days. Reuters reported that at least 44 civilians had been killed since last Friday.
The reaction of security forces to protests so far has raised suggestions in the media that the country’s leaders will not tolerate pro-democracy protests like those that have swept other Arab nations.
Assad's ruling Baath Party has banned opposition and enforced emergency laws since 1963.
According to a GlobalPost correspondent in Damascus, the government’s response on the ground so far has been a combination of denial and intimidation. The city and several surrounding towns, all embroiled in protest, have been cut off by the military.
Syrian journalists attempting to enter the city have been turned back. Phone lines are being closely monitored and citizens known to associate with journalists – foreign and domestic – have been rounded up and questioned.
On Thursday, an aide to Assad in Damascus read out a list of decrees containing concessions that would have seemed unimaginable three months ago, including a possible end to 48 years of emergency rule, reducing corruption, establishing political parties and opening up the media, The New York Times reported.
The statements, delivered by Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban, came after Britain, France, Germany and the United Nations all condemned the violence.
Shaaban told a news conference the president had not himself ordered his forces to fire on protesters, the Times reported.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, visiting Israel, said: “What the Syrian government is confronting is in fact the same challenge that faces so many governments across the region — and that is the unmet political and economic grievances of their people.”