Posted: 24 Mar 2011 06:53 PM PDT
Despite the promise and the offer of large public pay rises, thousands of Syrians turned out to chant "freedom, revolution" in the centre of the southern city of Deraa, the focal point of protests against 48 years of Baath Party rule.
"The Syrian people do not bow," they also chanted around the main Omari mosque, shortly after security forces evacuated the building that they stormed on Wednesday.
Syrian opposition figures said the promises did not meet the aspirations of the people, and were similar to those repeated at regular Baath Party conferences, where committees would be formed to study reforms that then never saw the light of day.
"The leadership is trying to absorb the rage of the streets. We want to see reform on the ground," said a Deraa protester.
A hospital official said at least 37 people had been killed in Deraa on Wednesday when security forces opened fire on demonstrators inspired by uprisings across the Arab world that have shaken authoritarian leaders.
While an aide said Assad would study a possible end to 48 years of emergency rule, a human rights group said a leading pro-democracy activist, Mazen Darwish, had been arrested.
Announcing promises for reform in a manner that would have seemed almost unimaginable three months ago in Syria, Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told a news conference that the president had not himself ordered his forces to fire on protesters:
"I was a witness to the instructions of His Excellency that live ammunition should not be fired, even if the police, security forces or officers of the state were being killed."
On January 31 Assad had said there was no chance that political upheavals then shaking Tunisia and Egypt would spread to Syria.
After the announcement yesterday, Syrian television showed a large procession of cars in Deraa driving in support of Assad, with pictures of the president plastered on the vehicles.
The Baath Party, which has ruled for half a century, will draft laws to provide for media freedoms, and will look at allowing other political movements. The party will also seek to lift living standards and consider ending the rule of emergency law.
Authorities released all those arrested in the Deraa region since the protests erupted, an official statement said, but it did not give a figure. The statement also said Assad ordered a 20 to 30 per cent salary rise for public employees across Syria.
"When you first hear it you think they're making major concessions, but when you look at it you realise there's not a lot there besides the salary boost," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at Oklahoma University in the US. "You understand the regime is in a very difficult spot and they're flustered."
Security forces opened fire on hundreds of youths on the outskirts of Deraa on Wednesday, witnesses said, after nearly a week of protests in which seven civilians had already died.
The main hospital in Deraa, near the Jordanian border, had received the bodies of at least 37 protesters killed on Wednesday, a hospital official said. That brings the number killed to at least 44 in a week of protests.
About 20,000 people marched yesterday in the funerals for nine of those killed, chanting freedom slogans and denying official accounts that "armed gangs" were behind the killings and violence.
"Traitors do not kill their own people," they chanted. "God, Syria, Freedom. The blood of martyrs is not spilt in vain!"
As armed Syrian soldiers patrolled the streets, residents emptied shops of basic goods and said they feared Assad's government was intent on crushing the revolt by force.
Assad, a close ally of Iran, a key player in neighbouring Lebanon and supporter of militant groups opposed to Israel, had dismissed demands for reform in Syria, a country of 20 million. — ReutersFull Feed Generated by Get Full RSS, sponsored by USA Best Price.
Posted: 24 Mar 2011 05:33 PM PDT
TOKYO, March 25 — Radiation injuries to three workers complicated the battle to control Japan's crippled nuclear plant yesterday, and heightened global anxiety over the worst atomic crisis in 25 years.
Hailed by Japanese as anonymous heroes braving unknown dangers, about 300 engineers have been working around the clock to stabilise the six-reactor Fukushima complex since an earthquake and tsunami struck two weeks ago.
But they had to pull out of some parts of the complex, 240km north of Tokyo, when three workers replacing a cable near reactor No. 3 were exposed to high contamination by standing in radioactive water yesterday, officials said.
Two were taken to hospital with possible radiation burns after the water seeped over their boots.
"We should try to avoid delays as much as possible, but we also need to ensure that the people working there are safe," said Japanese nuclear agency official Hidehiko Nishiyama.
Safety fears at the plant and beyond — radiation particles have been found as far away as Iceland — are compounding Japan's worst crisis since World War Two.
As well as causing the most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, the March 11 quake and ensuing tsunami left about 27,400 people dead or missing across the northeast.
Despite increased radiation reports, fears of a catastrophic meltdown at the Fukushima plant are receding.
Two of the reactors are now regarded as safe in what is called a cold shutdown. Four remain volatile, emitting steam and smoke periodically, but work is advancing to restart water pumps needed to cool fuel rods inside those reactors.
"It's much more hopeful," said Tony Roulstone, a nuclear energy expert at Cambridge University. "The most difficult thing is keeping the (spent-fuel) ponds cool, where they are using fire hoses."
Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) said the three injured workers were carrying radiation meters but ignored an alarm when it rang. Engineers would be briefed again on safety.
"They are working in a harsh environment," Tepco official Akira Suzui said during an overnight briefing.
The crisis has raised apprehension about nuclear power both in Japan and beyond, and the government of the world's third-largest economy plans to review the industry.
"Public confidence in nuclear power plants has greatly changed," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, who has been the government's public face during the crisis, told Reuters.
"In light of that, we must first end this situation and then study (it) from a zero base."
Japan's 55 nuclear reactors provide about 30 per cent of its electric power. This had been expected
to rise to 50 per cent by 2030, among the highest in the world.
Heightened by widespread public ignorance of the technicalities of radiation, alarm has been spreading.
Vegetable and milk shipments from the areas near the plant have been stopped, and Tokyo's 13 million residents were told this week not to give tap water to babies after contamination hit twice the safety level.
But it dropped back to safe levels the next day, and the city governor cheerily drank water in front of cameras at a water purifying plant.
Despite government reassurances and appeals for people not to panic, many shops saw bottled water flying off the shelves.
"Customers ask us for water. But there's nothing we can do," said Tokyo supermarket worker Masayoshi Kasahara.
In the latest contamination finds, Kyodo news agency said radioactive caesium 1.8 times higher than the standard level was found in a leafy vegetable grown at a Tokyo research facility.
Singapore said yesterday that it had found radioactive contaminants in four samples of vegetables from Japan.
Earlier, Singapore and Australia joined the United States and Hong Kong in restricting food and milk imports from the zone. Many other nations have tightened screening.
German shipping companies are avoiding Japan.
'Things getting better'
The estimated US$300 billion (RM908 billion) damage from the quake and tsunami is the world's costliest natural disaster, dwarfing Japan's 1995 Kobe quake and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.
In Japan's north, more than a quarter of a million people are in shelters. Exhausted rescuers are still sifting through the wreckage of towns and villages, retrieving bodies and pulling out photos for the consolation of survivors.
Official numbers of dead and missing are revised up every day — 9,811 people confirmed dead and 17,541 missing by today.
Authorities are burying unidentified bodies in mass graves.
Amid the suffering, though, there was a sense that Japan was turning the corner in its humanitarian crisis. Aid flowed to refugees, and phone, electricity, postal and bank services began returning to the north, albeit sometimes by makeshift means.
"Things are getting much better," said 57-year-old Tsutomu Hirayama, with his family at an evacuation centre in Ofunato.
"For the first two or three days, we had only one rice ball and water for each meal. I thought, how long is this going to go on? Now we get lots of food, it's almost like luxury." — Reuters
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