Middle East

Syrian activists call for release of detainees

Grab of video purportedly showing opposition activists dress as prisoners in protest in the city of Idlib at the detention of thousands of people during the Syrian uprising (20 January 2012)
Image caption Many protesters denounced the amnesty declared on Sunday for "crimes" committed in the uprising

Anti-government protesters have taken to the streets of Syria in support of thousands of people detained by the government in the 10-month uprising.

The UN said last month that more than 14,000 people were in detention, but human rights activists believe as many as 40,000 people are being held.

The mass protests came a day after an Arab League observer mission in Syria completed its month-long mission.

Activists said seven people had been killed by security forces on Friday.

Six activists were shot dead in two villages in the north-western province of Idlib, while the body of a kidnapped soldier was found in the southern city of Deraa, they added.

The Local Co-ordination Committees, which documents and organises protests, said the soldier had been helping the opposition.

Earlier, state media reported that an army brigadier and two other members of the security forces had been killed by a "terrorist group" in the central city of Hama.

The LCC said the brigadier had worked for Military Intelligence and was killed by soldiers who had defected and refused his orders to shoot at civilians.

'Amnesty for the media'

Thousands of people across Syria attended rallies on Friday called by activists "in support of the revolution's prisoner".

Many denounced the amnesty declared by President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday for "crimes" committed during the 10-month uprising against his rule.

The head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul Rahman, told the Associated Press that about 4,000 detainees had been released in the past week, many of them on bail and pending trial.

But he said 20,000 more were believed to be detention, not counting thousands of soldiers who were imprisoned for trying to desert.

"It was an amnesty for the media, nothing more," he added.

The campaign group Avaaz recently said more than 37,000 people were being held, and that a total of 69,000 had been detained since March.

Some people at Friday's protests also called for the end of the Arab League observer mission, which is accused of failing to halt the crackdown.

"Arab League, your hands are now soiled with the blood of Syrians," said one banner at a rally in a suburb of Damascus.

Image caption The Syrian government says it has freed hundreds of detainees in the last month

The UN Security Council was told earlier this month that 400 people had been killed during the monitors' first 10 days in Syria. The UN had previously said that more than 5,000 had died since March.

The Syrian authorities have said 2,000 members of the security forces have also been killed combating "armed gangs and terrorists".

Observers 'manipulated'

The head of the Arab League observer mission, Sudanese Gen Mohammed al-Dabi, flew on Thursday to the Egyptian capital Cairo, where he will present a report on its findings to Arab foreign ministers.

Although the initial mandate of the observer mission came to an end formally on Thursday, the agreement covering it provides for an extension for a second month if both sides agree. There has been no suggestion from Damascus that the monitors should be withdrawn.

The head of the Arab League's Cairo operations room, Adnan al-Khudeir, said the observers would remain in 17 difference places around Syria until a decision was made by the foreign ministers on Sunday.

On Friday, Human Rights Watch called on the Arab League to release in full the report from the observer mission.

The New York-based group said it should do this to address growing concern that its mission had been manipulated by the Syrian authorities.

It said it had documented apparent efforts to transfer hundreds of detainees to improvised holding centres at military sites that were off-limits to the observers, and the issuing of police identification cards to military officials apparently in order to give the impression that troops had withdrawn from civilian areas.

"Only a transparent assessment of the monitoring mission can determine whether the monitors should stay in the country," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"The Arab League should publicly recognise that Syria has not respected the League's plan and work with the Security Council to increase pressure on the authorities and effectively curtail the use of fire power."

The main opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council, said its leader Burhan Ghalioun would ask the Arab League to refer the situation in Syria to the Security Council, "with a view to securing a decision to establish a buffer zone and a no-fly zone".