AMMAN Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's efforts to contain an unprecedented wave of protests face a key test on Friday, after he unveiled a new cabinet and ordered detainees released in a bid to ease tensions.
Assad's measures were unlikely to satisfy many protesters demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption. The cabinet has little power and the release of detainees excluded those who committed crimes "against the nation and citizens."
Syria has thousands of political prisoners, whose numbers swelled after protests against Assad's authoritarian rule broke out in the southern city of Deraa exactly four weeks ago after the main Friday prayers.
Prayers, funerals and weddings are the main chances Syrians have to gather legally -- and every Friday since has seen large demonstrations, bloodshed, and mass arrests.
The official news agency said the releases cover detainees arrested in the recent wave of protests, but human rights defenders said there had been more arrests in the city of Deraa on Thursday.
A Syrian rights group said this week that more than 200 people had been killed during the protests. They have posed the biggest challenge to Assad since he assumed power in 2000 upon the death of his father Hafez, who ruled the country for 30 years.
There are sectarian overtones to the tensions arising from the protests.
Rights campaigners said Alawite irregulars, loyal to Assad and known as "al-shabbiha," killed four people in the seaside city of Banias and were used to quell protests in other areas.
Syria is a mostly Sunni Muslim nation ruled by minority Alawites, adherents to an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
"PLAYING ON SECTARIAN FEARS"
A senior opposition figure said Assad, who is Alawite, has been trying to stoke sectarian fears by saying that the protesters were serving a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife.
His father used similar language when he crushed a leftist and Islamist challenge to his iron rule in the 1980s.
"This is not 1982 Hama. The uprising is not confined to a single area," an opposition figure said, referring to an attack by Hafez al-Assad's forces to put down a revolt led by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama that killed up to 30,000 people.
"But we have seen apathy from Alawites and Christians," added the opposition source, who did not want to be further identified.
"The regime has banned independent media, which makes it easier to spread lies and play on Alawite fears. But the Syrian people as a whole are realizing that nonviolent resistance to oppression is nonsectarian by nature," the source said.
Assad has tried to face down the protests, which have spread from Deraa to the Mediterranean coast, the Kurdish east and the central city of Homs. He has used a mixture of force, promises of reform and concessions to minority Kurds and conservative Muslims.
But his decision last Thursday to grant citizenship to tens of thousands of stateless Kurds, as well as announcements about lifting a ban on veiled teachers and closing Syria's sole casino, failed to prevent protests erupting the next day.
Hours after the announcement that detainees would be released, a pro-democracy demonstration erupted in Sweida, Syria's Druze heartland, a witness said.
CALLS FOR RESTRAINT
The United States, France and Britain have urged Assad to refrain from violence. Rights campaigners say the protests have been inspired by intensifying repression over the last several years and by uprisings which toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia and challenged others from North Africa to the Gulf.
Demonstrators have been seeking reforms including an end to emergency law, which bans gatherings of more than five people and has been in force since the Baath Party took power nearly 50 years ago. Thousands also echoed the refrain of the wider Arab uprisings, demanding "the overthrow of the regime."
Authorities blame "armed groups" and "infiltrators" for the bloodshed, saying police and security forces have been killed.
In the restive Mediterranean town of Banias, which security forces had sealed off and surrounded with tanks after a demonstration last week, authorities freed hundreds of people on Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The move was part of a deal struck in Damascus between a Baath Party official and imams and prominent figures from Banias, intended to help calm the city ahead of Friday prayers.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)