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Syria talks of reforms amid protests, U.S. rebuke

The Syrian government said Thursday that it would consider sweeping reforms in a gambit to assuage protesters, who gathered by the thousands after security forces in one southern town killed at least 15 people in a week of demonstrations.

The move was the latest sign that even a closed-off police state isn't immune to the rebellion coursing through the Arab world, and it came as the United States issued a stinging criticism of the harsh security crackdown of the last week.

Tens of thousands of people chanted "Syria! Freedom!" at funerals Thursday for some of the victims of clashes in the city of Daraa, according to witnesses and amateur video that was posted online and broadcast on regional news channels.

The Obama administration on Thursday issued a strong condemnation of Syria's "brutal repression of demonstrations," saying that it was "deeply troubled" by the arbitrary arrests of human rights activists and others. It demanded that "those responsible for the violence must be held accountable." The State Department issued a travel alert for Syria, cautioning U.S. citizens to avoid demonstrations and even to avoid conversations about politics, religion and other social issues, as they "could lead to arrest."

Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, like other embattled authoritarian regimes, up to now has portrayed protesters as thugs and religious extremists. But on Thursday, it acknowledged that some opposition demands were legitimate and would be addressed by national political and economic reforms.

Buthaina Shaaban, a senior adviser to the president, told a news conference in the capital, Damascus, that the government would consider lifting the emergency law that has been in place for nearly 50 years and might begin to license political parties. She added that other proposed reforms would address unemployment, bring more media freedom and increase salaries for civil servants. State news media also reported that all protesters detained in the last week's violence would be released.

Syrian pro-democracy activists rejected the announcements as insufficient and issued calls for record crowds to demonstrate after midday prayers today. "We've heard it all for 10 years now. This president talks a lot but, in practice, nothing happens," Haitham al-Maleh, a prominent dissident who spent years in prison, said by phone from Damascus.

Meanwhile, protesters and supporters of Jordan's king clashed in the capital, Amman, late Thursday, and about 35 people were injured in one of the most violent incidents in three months of demonstrations. About 2,000 Jordanians demanding government reforms joined an encampment at a central square. They were attacked by about 300 supporters of King Abdullah II, who threw rocks at the demonstrators, injuring some of them.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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