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BEIRUT (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad granted citizenship on Thursday to Kurds in eastern Syria, part of attempts to cool resentment over nearly five decades of strict Baathist rule and deflect pro-democracy protests.
Popular protests across mostly Sunni Muslim Syria demanding an end to a decades-old emergency law and one-party rule have posed the most serious challenge to Assad's 11 years in power.
Syria's ruling hierarchy, packed with minority Alawites, has tolerated no dissent and has used emergency laws to justify arbitrary arrests, including those of other minorities such as Kurds who say they are discriminated against.
Assad's overture to Kurds who make up about 10 percent of Syria's 20 million population came after reports that authorities had released 48 Kurdish prisoners and that the president had met leaders in the eastern al-Hasaka region where many Kurds live earlier in the week.
It was not immediately clear how many would be given nationality, but at least 150,000 Kurds are registered as foreigners as a result of a 1962 census in al-Hasaka.
But Kurdish leader Habib Ibrahim said Kurds would press their non-violent struggle for civil rights and democracy to replace autocratic rule.
"Our cause is democracy for the whole of Syria. Citizenship is the right of every Syrian. It is not a favour. It is not the right of anyone to grant," Ibrahim, who heads the Democratic Unity Kurdish Party, told Reuters.
Assad cracked down on ethnic Kurds when they launched violent demonstrations against the state in 2004. Kurds are not allowed to teach Kurdish in schools and cannot set up Kurdish radio stations.
Syria had increased the number of arrests of Kurdish activists since uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled the countries' rulers, in power for decades.
State television also said that Assad had fired the governor of Homs province, an area that saw clashes during protests. Officials have blamed armed groups for opening fire on citizens in Homs on Friday.
The gesture was unlikely to appease some protesters who blame the deaths on security forces and are dissatisfied by the limited steps Assad has taken towards addressing their grievances, particularly the lifting of emergency law.
Assad has ordered a panel to draft anti-terrorism legislation to replace emergency law, but critics say the replacement will probably grant the state much of the same powers.
Assad has also fired the governor of Deraa, where the protests first erupted nearly three weeks ago.
Last week Assad sacked his government and later appointed agriculture minister Adel Safar to form a new cabinet. State news agency SANA said on Thursday the new government was expected to be announced next week.
In a move to mollify conservative Muslims, Syria lifted on Wednesday a ban on teachers wearing the full face veil and ordered the closure of the country's only casino.
Many Sunni Muslim tribes resent the power and wealth accumulated by the Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shi'ite Islam.
More than 70 people have been killed in the protests, which have been inspired by popular uprisings across the Arab world.
At least 10 people were killed last Friday in the Damascus suburb of Douma, seen as the next focal point of protests where demonstrators have set up a vigil outside the mosque.
Western powers and northern neighbour Turkey have urged Assad to make concrete reforms and have criticised the violence against protesters.
In a statement, the Baath Party said: "The Syrian Arab people, under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad, will repel attempts to shake security .... and would not be dragged into suspicious plots." Assad has blamed the unrest on a foreign conspiracy against Syria.
Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Mariam Karouny; editing by Elizabeth Piper