At least nine dead in Syria as regime pledges to free prisoners


AT LEAST nine protesters were reported killed yesterday in Syria in continuing violence despite a commitment by Damascus to an Arab League plan to withdraw troops and tanks from the country’s towns and cities and halt the crackdown on demonstrations.

According to the opposition’s local co-ordination committees and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, troops confronted protesters in a dozen locations, while the Syrian official news agency, Sana, said 13 soldiers and police officers were killed by “armed terrorist groups” in Hama, a hotbed of the revolt.

In a move to calm the situation, the Syrian interior ministry promised pardons for “citizens who carried, sold, delivered, transported and funded the purchase of weapons [but] did not commit crimes” if they handed them- selves in at police stations within a week. The government announced the release at Eid al-Adha of prisoners detained since unrest erupted nearly eight months ago. It also agreed to talks with opposition groups in two weeks’ time and to permit league monitors and Arab and international journalists to enter and travel freely throughout the country.

Since the Eid – the feast marking the climax of the annual Muslim pilgrimage – takes place on Sunday, prisoners could be freed today or tomorrow. Human rights activists say there could be 30,000 detainees, and estimate that 3,000 civilians have been killed. The government says 1,100 soldiers and policemen have died.

While figures associated with the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group formed in Istanbul, dismissed Damascus’s pledge to abide by the Arab League plan as a means to “buy time”, other opposition organisations have welcomed the deal.

Building the Syrian State, a body representing dissidents inside Syria, said, “We will work to translate this initiative into an opportunity to change the country through peaceful political struggle” and called on “all Syrian opposition parties and figures to accept the initiative”.

The organisation urged the divided opposition to unite, protesters to refrain from violence, and army defectors to halt operations. The “Free Syrian Army”, composed of deserters, said it would adhere to the league agreement “as long as the regime commits to the same”. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group warned the deal may be “a last chance” to prevent a “more violent and dangerous confrontation” between security forces and insurgents backed by outside powers, including Turkey which hosts the “Free Syrian Army.”