Syrian dissidents told their country's leaders that they needed to "dismantle the police state" in a face-to-face meeting broadcast live on state television yesterday.
In scenes that would have been remarkable before four months of protests and violent suppression, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad allowed public criticism to be aired at a televised conference and promised "multi-party democracy".
"The bullets are still being fired in Homs and Hama," said one participant, the writer Tayyeb Tizini, referring to two major cities that have seen repeated demonstrations. "Laying the foundations for a civil society requires the dismantling of the police state. That is an absolute prerequisite."
He called for the release of "thousands" of political prisoners, some of whom, he said, had been in jail for years.
But the convention was boycotted by many leading dissidents and opposition figures, calling its final purpose into question. "I thought 1,500 people died for more than a dialogue between the regime and itself," one activist wrote on Twitter.
The Assad regime claims to be using dialogue as well as security operations to solve the crisis caused by the street protests in recent weeks. It says hundreds of police and soldiers have also been killed.
But military attempts to impose order have overshadowed the promised reforms, which have not extended to any sign that Mr Assad or his powerful relatives are ready to hand over power.
In the city of Hama, according to Syrian human rights groups based abroad, 23 people were killed last week, as the government used tanks to reimpose its control. More died in demonstrations across the country after prayers on Friday.
Nevertheless, at yesterday's 'dialogue' in Damascus, Faruq al-Shara, the vice-president, went further than previous regime statements in offering democratic change. "Our society will not be able to achieve freedom and civil peace without a democratic, pluralistic political system," he said.
The 'dialogue' is due to end today.
Meanwhile, one of Syria's best known dissidents has been allowed to leave the country. Haitham al-Maleh (80), a lawyer, arrived in Istanbul yesterday. (©Daily Telegraph, London)