Syria promises free election as it tightens siege

Like previous reform promises, the new announcement is unlikely to have much resonance with Syria's opposition, which says it has lost all confidence in President Bashar Assad's overtures.

Tens of thousands of protesters marched in cities around the country on Friday, met by gunfire from Syrian troops. Activists said Saturday that 24 people were killed. The four-year term of the current parliament expired earlier this year and Assad is expected to set a date for new legislative elections before the end of 2011.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem pledged to press ahead with reforms and said the new parliament "will represent the aspirations of the Syrian people."

"The ballot box will be the determining factor and it will be up to the elected parliament to review adopted draft bills to decide on them," he said during a meeting he held with Arab and foreign ambassadors in Damascus.

But Syria was coming under increasing international criticism over the bloody siege of Hama, launched on Sunday after residents calling for Assad's ouster took over the city of 800,000 and barricaded it against regime forces.

Friday night, tanks shelled Hama, causing several casualties, one resident said. He said there were reports that a hospital was hit in the bombardment. The resident sneaked out of Hama on Friday to try and get supplies and spoke to The Associated Press by phone Saturday from the city's outskirts.

"I am trying to get back but it's impossible, they've tightened the siege even more, not even an ant can go in or out today," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Authorities have imposed a media blackout on Hama and the reports could not be immediately confirmed. Electricity, internet and phone lines in the city have been cut for seven days, and residents have reported food and medical supplies dwindling, amid frequent shelling and raids.

Rights group say at least 100 people have been killed, while some estimates put the number as high as 250. Syria's government broadcast images of buildings and empty rubble-strewn streets in Hama, claiming the military was putting an end to an armed rebellion launched by "terrorists."

On Saturday, Gulf Arab countries broke their silence on the bloodshed, calling for an immediate end to the violence and for implementation of "serious" reforms in Syria. In a statement posted on its website, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council expressed deep concern and regret for "the escalating violence in Syria and use of excess force." Germany's foreign minister cast doubt on Assad's future.

"I don't think that there can still be a political future for Assad that is supported by the Syrian people," Guido Westerwelle told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, the newspaper reported Saturday in a preview of an article for Sunday's edition.

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