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Assad orders review of Syrian laws

Syrian president Bashar Assad has responded to a massive protest movement demanding reforms by setting up a committee to look into replacing decades-old emergency laws which give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge.

The move appears to be a carefully designed attempt by Mr Assad to show he will not be pressured to implement reform - instead, he will make changes at his own pace. On Wednesday, he dashed expectations that he would announce sweeping changes, blaming two weeks of widespread dissent on a foreign conspiracy.

It was not immediately clear whether the move would pacify a growing protest movement in one of the Middle East's most autocratic regimes, with thousands of Syrians calling for change. Activists have called for massive demonstrations across Syrian provinces on Friday, dubbing it "Martyrs Day".

The state-run news agency said the committee would complete its study by April 25.

Syrian TV said the ruling Baath Party's regional command formed the committee made up of legal experts to study legislation that would "guarantee the country's security and dignity of Syrians and combat terrorism. "This would pave the way for lifting the state of emergency laws," it said.

Mr Assad fired his 32-member cabinet on Tuesday in a move designed to mollify the anti-government protesters, but the overture was largely symbolic. Mr Assad holds the lion's share of power in the authoritarian regime, and there are no real opposition figures or alternatives to the current leadership.

The protests were touched off by the arrest of several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on walls in the southern city of Daraa. They spread to other parts of the country last week, and human rights groups say more than 60 people have been killed since March 18 as security forces cracked down on the demonstrations.

An anti-government protester in Daraa said security forces arrested up to 17 people in the city overnight. He said a sit-in by a few hundred protesters near al-Omari mosque, the epicentre of protests, has ended, but protesters are regrouping for more demonstrations in Daraa and nearby areas on Friday.

In Mr Assad's speech to parliament on Wednesday - his first public comments since the protests began - he said Syria was being subjected to a "major conspiracy". He made only a passing reference to the protesters' calls for change, saying he was in favour of reform, but acknowledged there have been delays, adding: "The question is what reforms do we need?"

Social networking sites immediately exploded with activists calling on Syrians to take to the streets. Within hours, residents of the Mediterranean port city of Latakia said troops opened fire during a protest by about 100 people, although it was not immediately clear whether they were firing in the air or at the protesters.

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