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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 January 2006, 13:48 GMT
Assad pledges reforms for Syria
Bashar al-Assad
Mr Assad spoke of accelerating reforms
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said he has decided to carry out political reform.

But he gave no details, other than to say he rejected any outside interference in the matter.

His address, to lawyers in Damascus, follows the early release of five leading political prisoners.

Mr Assad repeated criticism that the UN investigation into the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was biased against Syria.

He said the investigators had reached their conclusions first and looked for the evidence afterwards.

And he strongly hinted that he would refuse the commission's request to give evidence in person in the case.

Instead, President Assad supported a call for a commission to investigate what he described as the assassination of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in a French hospital just over a year ago.

The speech was regularly interrupted with angry chants of support from the audience of Arab lawyers, but our correspondent says the Syrian leader himself was strangely downbeat.

He said Syria and the Arab world were being targeted by what he called outside forces who wanted to control their resources.

There has been much talk of reform since Mr Assad came to power in 2000, but little action to show for it, says the BBC's Jon Leyne in Damascus.

Grip on power

Mr Assad said he was studying projects designed to free up the party system and to draw more Syrians into the political process, adding that the government was working towards making the judiciary independent.

"The road is long, and perhaps reforms are being done slowly, but we want to accelerate them as fast as possible, without harming [the nation's] stability," he said.

But reforms had to be "consistent with domestic requirements, and we refuse to accept them being imposed from abroad", he said.

At the moment the Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, is banned in Syria, and there are estimated to be up to 1,500 political prisoners.

On Wednesday five leading dissidents, including MPs Riad Seif and Mamoun Homsi were released from prison, after 45 months of their five-year prison sentences.

The human rights group Amnesty International has also been allowed into the country for the first time since 1997.

But there is still no sign of the major changes that seemed possible when President Assad took office in the year 2000, our correspondent says.

There has been no sign that the members of the ruling circle are willing to give away much of their power.

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