Middle East

Syria 'releases 755 detained during unrest'

Syrian state TV says the authorities have released 755 people detained during the nine-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

The prisoners had been involved "in recent incidents" but their "hands were not stained with blood", a report said.

The UN says more than 14,000 people are in detention and 5,000 have been killed as a result of the state's crackdown.

Arab League monitors are continuing to deploy as they oversee a peace plan but there are reports of fresh violence.

At least seven people have been killed so far on Wednesday in a number of towns and cities, activists said.

The head of the observer mission has described what he has seen so far as "reassuring" and "nothing frightening", dismaying some activists and Western observers.

Detainees 'hidden'

The state TV news flash announcing the prisoner release on Wednesday said only that those affected "did not have Syrian blood on their hands". It did not mention where the protesters were arrested or detained.

In November, the government announced that it had freed 1,180 prisoners, citing similar conditions.

But earlier this month, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said tens of thousands of people had been arrested and more than 14,000 were reported to be in detention as a result of the crackdown.

Human rights activists believe as many as 40,000 people are being held.

Ms Pillay also said she had evidence that Syrian security forces had committed crimes against humanity against the civilian population, including acts of killings, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, imprisonment, or other forms of severe deprivation of liberty and enforced disappearances.

On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch accused the Syrian authorities of hiding hundreds of detainees in military installations, which the observers are not permitted to visit.

The BBC's Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says Wednesday's prisoner release announcement is a relatively small gesture by the government to give the appearance that it is co-operating with the Arab League.

The Arab League monitors were in Homs again on Wednesday, and were visiting three other centres of unrest - the nearby city of Hama, the north-western province of Idlib, and the southern province of Deraa, where the uprising began.

One resident of the Baba Amr district in Homs told Reuters that activists had refused to meet the monitors because they would not give up their Syrian army escort.

Video footage said to be from Hama on Wednesday showed what appeared to be protesters running away from security forces as black smoke rises in the background.

The Local Coordination Committees in Syria said seven people had been killed so far on Wednesday, four in Homs, two in Hama and one in Aleppo.

Casualty figures and other information are hard to verify from Syria as most foreign media are banned from reporting.

On Tuesday, Syrian security forces, which had reportedly been pounding several residential areas in Homs with artillery, eased off before the observers arrived and pulled some tanks off the streets.

But when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, tear gas and live fire were used to disperse them, despite the fact that under the peace plan, all military forces are supposed to be withdrawn and peaceful demonstrations permitted.

Despite the reported violence, the head of the observer mission, Sudanese Gen Mustafa al-Dabi, told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday: "The situation seemed reassuring so far.

Image caption The protesters in Homs urged the Arab observers to be more outspoken

"There were some places where the situation was not good," he said. "But there wasn't anything frightening, at least while we were there. Things were calm and there were no clashes.

"We did not see tanks but we did see some armoured vehicles."

Our correspondent says Gen Dabi was clearly reserving judgement and that the small number of Arab League monitors means it is virtually impossible to keep tabs on everything happening in such a big country.

Gen Dabi's comments on Homs dismayed France, whose foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said: "The brevity of their stay did not allow them to appreciate the reality of the prevailing situation."

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