Syria to free protest detainees as new cabinet unveiled

Syria announced an amnesty for scores of prisoners detained since a wave of protests erupted on March 15 as it unveiled a new cabinet to replace the one that quit last month.

Last Updated: Apr 14, 2011, 23:06 PM IST

Damascus: Syria announced an amnesty on Thursday
for scores of prisoners detained since a wave of protests
erupted on March 15 as it unveiled a new cabinet to replace
the one that quit last month.

The promised release of prisoners came amid a growing
international outcry over the authorities` crackdown on the
demonstrations that have now spread from the provinces to the
main cities of Damascus and Aleppo.

"The president has decided to free all those held against
the backdrop of recent events, except those who committed
criminal acts against the homeland and its citizens," state
television said, without giving numbers.

Human rights activists say scores of people have been
rounded up since the demonstrations started, particularly in
the protest centres of Daraa, south of the capital, and
Latakia and Banias on the Mediterranean coast.

Recently appointed Prime Minister Adel Safar formed a new
government, which was promulgated in a decree by President
Bashar al-Assad, state television said.

Mohammed Naji Otri, who had been in office since 2003,
resigned on March 29 and Safar, the then agricultural
minister, was named on April 3 to replace him.

A day after a deal was struck for the army to restore
order in the flashpoint city of Banias, snipers shot dead a
soldier and wounded another, state news agency SANA said.

The killing came amid claims that several people freed
after detention in the city charged they had been tortured.

"A group of snipers opened fire on soldiers as they were
on patrol in Banias," SANA said. "One soldier was killed and
another wounded by this criminal gang," it added, without
identifying the attackers.

London-based human rights activist Rami Abdel Rahman
said: "There was a deal on Wednesday between Syrian officials
and city residents for the army to enter Banias imminently to
restore order.

"Security agents will refrain from patrolling
neighbourhoods to make arrests, and the hundreds of people
arrested in Banias will be released," Abdel Rahman, head of
the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), told AFP by
telephone.

"Elements of armed gangs," some of whom he said were
close to security and intelligence services and "have caused
unrest in order to create dissension, will be prosecuted", he
added.

And "security officers who failed to stop the unrest and
brought Banias to the brink of a confessional war will be
punished too," Abdel Rahman said.

Banias is a Mediterranean port city home to Sunnis and
Alawite Muslims, as well as Christians.

Security forces have encircled the city, 280
kilometres (175 miles) northwest of Damascus, since deadly
clashes there on Sunday.

PTI