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Syrian President Frees Detainees, Announces New Cabinet

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addresses the nation during a speech at the Parliament in Damascus, Syria, March 30, 2011

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has announced a series of measures apparently designed to appease opposition protesters who have been calling for reforms.

State-run media reports say President Assad has ordered the release of detainees arrested in the recent wave of protests, except those convicted of "criminal acts."

Thursday's announcement came shortly after President Assad announced the formation of a new 31-member Cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Adel Safar, a former minister of agriculture.

President Assad dismissed the previous government more than two weeks ago in an apparent concession to growing protests by Syrians demanding reforms.

Separately, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner announced that U.S. officials have evidence that Iran is helping Syria crack down on anti-government protests.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that U.S. authorities believe Tehran is providing equipment to Syria as well as assistance in monitoring and blocking protesters' use of cell phones, text-messaging and the Internet.

Meanwhile, Syria's state-run news agency said Thursday that snipers fired on a military patrol in the coastal city of Banias, killing one soldier and wounding a second.

Earlier Thursday, reports from Syria said President Assad had met with representatives from the protest-hit town of Daraa. Last Friday, security forces killed at least 26 demonstrators in the Daraa area.

Amnesty International on Thursday urged President Assad to "rein in" his security forces to prevent any additional "unlawful killings." In a statement, the rights group said the Syrian government appears to be intent on "trying to crush all dissent."

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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