By HOUWAIDA SAAD
Published: July 6, 2008
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian military police officers fired on Islamist inmates early on Saturday during a riot at a prison outside Damascus, the Syrian capital, leaving at least nine inmates dead, human rights officials here said.
Inmates at the prison also took hostage a group of military police and prison officials and were holding them as of Saturday afternoon, according to officials at Human Rights Watch, who said they were receiving information through cellphone calls with an inmate inside the prison.
The Syrian authorities did not release any statement on the events at Saydnaya Prison. Located about 20 miles outside Damascus, the prison is believed to have about 1,500 inmates, most of them Islamists.
“We have the names of nine prisoners who were shot and apparently killed, and inmates say at least 25 prisoners were killed in all,” said Nadim Houry, the Syria and Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch, a group based in New York.
Mr. Houry gave the following account of the riot, as told by an inmate. Military police arrived early on Saturday to do a security sweep. A group of Islamist prisoners protested what they called ill treatment, leading to a confrontation in which the police fired on them, killing nine. The prisoners took nine prison officials and guards hostage. A group of military police then agreed to drop their weapons and were also taken hostage.
The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is scheduled to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Paris on Saturday, resuming high-level contacts between Syria and France. Syria has drawn criticism in recent months over a renewed crackdown on dissidents, including the arrest and imprisonment of a former Parliament member, Riad Seif, and 13 other signers of a petition calling for democratic change in Syria.
Saydnaya, the prison where the riot took place, “is a symbol of repression in Syria, and it’s very difficult to get clear information about what goes on there,” Mr. Houry said. “It’s the place where everyone tried by the state security court ends up serving their sentence, and inmates are often tortured and ill treated there.”
During the 1980s, the Syrian government fought an internal war with Islamists. In 1980, security forces killed hundreds of Islamist inmates at another prison after an assassination attempt against President Hafez al-Assad, Mr. Assad’s father.