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Deal struck to try to calm restive Syrian city

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian authorities sought to defuse tensions in Banias by agreeing to withdraw the feared secret police from the restive coastal city replacing them with army patrols and to free imprisoned pro-democracy protesters.

Women demonstrate on the Baida coastal highway April 13, 2011. REUTERS/Handout

Syrian forces sealed off Banias and surrounded it with tanks after a protest against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, 45, in the city on Friday, during which protesters shouted “the people want the overthrow of the regime.”

The demonstration, echoing the rallying cries of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, was part of a wave of unrest that has swept Syria in which one rights group said 200 people have died. Students marched on Wednesday in Syria’s second city of Aleppo.

Irregular loyalists to Assad, known as ‘al-shabbiha’, killed four people in Banias on Sunday, a rights campaigner said, raising tensions further in the mostly Sunni Muslim nation ruled by minority Alawites, adherents to an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

“Banias residents arrested over the past several weeks are already being released,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. “The army will go in but there is also a pledge to pull out the secret police ... and improve living conditions.”

The United States, France, Britain and other nations have urged Assad to refrain from violence in dealing with protests.

The unrest in Syria came to a head after police detained more than a dozen children in the city of Deraa for graffiti inspired by pro-democracy protests across the Arab world.

Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in this most tightly controlled of Arab countries, where the Baath Party has been in power for nearly 50 years. Modern Syria gained its independence from France in 1946.

AHEAD OF FRIDAY PRAYERS

Al Jazeera television reported that the Syrian army had told Banias residents that it would enter the city, but had promised there would be no attacks by the military.

The deal, struck in Damascus between a Baath Party official and imams and prominent figures from Banias, was intended to help calm the city, home to one of Syria’s two oil refineries, ahead of Friday prayers which have been a flashpoint.

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Friday prayers have seen mounting protests against the iron rule of the Baath Party, which started in the southern city of Deraa almost a month ago. The protests have spread to Damascus’s suburbs, the northeast, the Mediterranean coast and other areas.

The Baath Party has banned opposition and enforced emergency laws since 1963. The wave of unrest has presented Assad with the biggest challenge to his rule since he succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled for 30 years until his death in 2000.

Assad has responded to the protests with a blend of deadly force -- security forces have killed unarmed protesters, according to witnesses -- and vague promises of reform which have failed to dampen the demonstrations.

The Damascus Declaration, Syria’s main rights group, has said the death toll from the protests had reached 200.

In the region, Assad has sought to position Syria as the champion of “resistance” to Israel, supporting militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah while seeking peace with the Jewish state and accepting offers for rehabilitation in the West.

With a heavy secret police presence, preachers on the state payroll giving pro-Assad sermons and the Sunni merchant class staying on the sidelines, major protests have yet to spread in earnest to central Damascus and Aleppo.

This has denied protesters the critical mass seen in the uprisings which swept Tunisia and Egypt and toppled their Western-backed autocratic rulers.

But religiously conservative Sunni areas along Syria’s coastline have defied a campaign of arrests and security sweeps designed to halt the unrest from taking hold of the country.

WOMEN MARCH FOR MEN’S RELEASE

In the latest protest, hundreds of women from a Syrian town where 350 men were arrested as part of the crackdown staged a march on Wednesday demanding their release.

Security forces, including secret police, stormed Baida on Tuesday, entering houses and arresting men up to the age of 60, lawyers said. The arrests came after people joined protests challenging Baath Party rule.

In Aleppo to the northeast, about 150 students marched on Wednesday in a protest demanding political freedoms on the campus of Aleppo University.

Baath Party irregulars quickly dispersed the students who chanted: “We sacrifice our blood and our soul for you, Deraa.”

“The thugs quickly organised a pro-Assad demonstration, and sure enough, Syrian television came to film it,” one of the activists said, adding that several protesters were beaten and three students were arrested.

A new cabinet will be announced on Thursday, a semi-official newspaper said, to replace the government Assad sacked last month, as the protests spread.

Opposition figures said any genuine reforms in Syria to allow people more freedom would require an effective executive branch and independent judiciary to replace a powerless government structure dominated by the Baath Party.

Lawyers say emergency law has been used by authorities to ban protest, justify arbitrary arrests and closed courts and give free rein to the secret police and security apparatus, which have all severely compromised the rule of law.

Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, editing by Peter Millership

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