Middle East

Syria turmoil: Political inmates 'freed' after protests

Clashes at Omayyad Mosque in Damascus after Friday prayers, 25 March
Image caption Clashes erupted in Damascus and other cities on Friday

The authorities in Syria have released a substantial number of political prisoners, reports say.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 200 inmates, mostly Islamists, were freed from Damascus' Saidnaya prison.

The move comes after the US and the UN condemned the Syrian government following reports that troops fired on peaceful protesters on Friday.

Witnesses say dozens of people were killed in the pro-democracy protests.

This claim has not been independently verified.

Unconfirmed reports say that security troops stormed a protest sit-in on the outskirts of the the capital, arresting about 200 people in the midnight raid.

Reform pledge

"Syrian authorities released more than 200 prisoners from Saidnaya, mainly Islamists, after the prisoners had submitted signed requests for their release," Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told the AFP news agency on Saturday.

However, reports about the total number involved differ, with another human rights activist being quoted by Reuters as saying that 70 political prisoners were freed.

The Syrian government has so far made no public comment on the issue.

On Friday, protests were staged in towns and cities across Syria, including Damascus.

Gunfire was heard in the city of Deraa, which has become the centre of a serious challenge to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The marchers who took to the streets in Deraa had attended funerals for some of the 25 protesters killed on Wednesday.

Some of the protesters started a fire under a bronze statue of Mr Assad's father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, witnesses reported.

Another group of protesters trying to reach Deraa were killed in the nearby village of Salamen when security forces opened fire.

A government official confirmed that at least 10 protesters had died, although witnesses said up to 20 people had been killed.

In Damascus, hundreds marched on King Faisal Street chanting: "Peaceful, Peaceful, God, Syria, Freedom." This protest was broken up by security forces and many were arrested, reports say.

Supporters of Mr Assad were also staging large protests in the capital, and clashes erupted between the two sides.

In the central city of Hama, hundreds of people were said to have gathered on the city streets to chant "freedom".

In 1982, the Syrian army put down an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama. Rights groups believe that tens of thousands of civilians were killed when large parts of the city were destroyed in the military assault.

In Tall, witnesses quoted by the Reuters news agency said about 1,000 people had rallied to show their support for the Deraa protesters, and were chanting slogans denouncing members of the ruling Assad family.

Demonstrations which ended in violence were also reported in the cities of Latakia and Homs. One person was killed in each place, the Associated Press news agency quoted an activist as saying.

Amnesty International has expressed fears that 55 people may have died in Syria in the past week.

The Syrian government said on Thursday it would consider political reforms, including the possible ending of emergency laws introduced in 1963. The government also said it would put on trial those suspected of killing several protesters in Deraa.