Syrian prisoners fear massacre in wake of riot

By Agence France Presse

NICOSIA: The prisoners who staged a revolt in a Syrian jail fear that the government’s security forces will mount a deadly assault, a human rights group said on Monday.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is considered close to the opposition, says that at least 25 people have already been killed since the riots broke out on Saturday.

“The prisoners continued their revolt on Monday but they have freed all those being held hostage, as a goodwill gesture,” the Observatory said in a statement received in Nicosia that quoted a spokesman for the inmates.

The spokesman warned that “a massacre could be committed if the security forces carry out their threat and launch an assault” on the prison in Saydnaya, located about 40 kilometers north of the Syrian capital.

Police have pulled back from the facility and patrols are keeping relatives of prisoners at a distance, the rights group said, citing witnesses.

On Sunday, Syrian authorities accused inmates of having provoked the riots at one of the country’s largest prisons, also used for political detainees, without clarifying if order had been restored.

“Prisoners sentenced for crimes of terrorism and extremism caused trouble … in Saydnaya prison. They attacked their comrades during a prison inspection,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency said.

According to the Observatory, the deaths came as military police fired live bullets at Islamist inmates who rioted after a raid by prison guards. About 400 detained soldiers were taken hostage, it said.

According to a Lebanon-based Syrian political activist, the detainees were willing to surrender if the interior minister pledged they would not be killed or tortured. He has reportedly refused to provide such a commitment.

One inmate told the BBC’s Arabic service that the guards had treated the prisoners roughly during raids, assaulting several of them and desecrating copies of the Koran.

Syria has cracked down on dissidents in recent months, drawing criticism from the West, particularly since the arrests are being carried out under emergency laws in force since the Baath Party too power 1963.

Saydnaya prison was built in 1987 to accommodate 5,000 inmates but has been used to accomodate as many as 10,000, according to the Syrian Human Rights Committee.

In 2004, it held several hundred members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as leftists, Palestinians, Islamist militants and detained Syrian soldiers, according to the rights group.

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