Syria bows to Arab League by releasing hundreds of prisoners

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Authorities in Syria have released 755 prisoners who were detained in the government crackdown on dissent over the past nine months.

SANA, the country’s state-run news agency, said the release excludes prisoners with “blood on their hands”.

The release of prisoners is one of the terms of the Arab League peace plan to stop the bloodshed comes a day after Arab monitors were allowed to deploy in the country to ensure authorities are complying with the plan.

US-based Human Rights Watch had just accused Syrian authorities of hiding hundreds of detainees from the observers now in the country.

It said the detainees have been transferred to off-limits military sites and urged the observers to insist on full access to all sites used for detention.

The New York-based group’s report echoes charges made by Syrian opposition members.

Syrian officials have said the Arab League monitors will have unrestricted access to trouble spots but will not be allowed to visit sensitive military sites.

“Syria has shown it will stop at nothing to undermine independent monitoring of its crackdown,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

She said it was essential for the Arab League “to draw clear lines” regarding access to detainees, and be willing to speak out when those lines are crossed.

Last month, Syrian authorities released 2,645 prisoners in three batches but activists and critics say thousands more who were picked up in the past months remain in jail.

The Arab observers started their one-month mission in the violence-wracked country with a visit yesterday to Homs – the first time Syria has allowed outside monitors to the city at the heart of the anti-government uprising.

A local official in Homs said a team of four observers were in the city yesterday, touring various districts.

Violence has continued in several parts of the country, with activists saying two died in the Baba Amr district of Homs, and at least four soldiers were killed in an ambush carried out by a group of military defectors in the country’s south.

In Washington, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner demanded Syrian authorities allow the monitors full access to the Syrian people. “We expect that Arab League monitors will be able to deploy and move freely within Homs and other Syrian cities as protesters peacefully gather,” Mr Toner said, suggesting the international community “will consider other means to protect Syrian civilians” if authorities continued to resist the Arab League efforts.