Syria to Free Protest Detainees as New Cabinet Unveiled


Syria announced an amnesty 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 centers 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 Abdul 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 neighborhoods to make arrests, and the hundreds of people arrested in Banias will be released," Abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), told Agence France Presse 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," Abdul 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 kilometers northwest of Damascus, since deadly clashes there on Sunday.

Government forces killed at least four people and wounded 17 when they strafed a residential area of the town with gunfire for hours, witnesses said.

And nine soldiers were later killed when their patrol was ambushed outside the town, the official SANA news agency said.

Scores of people were also wounded in the unrest and hundreds reportedly arrested in Banias and the nearby village of Baida.

And the official SANA news agency said several people, including a soldier, three rebels and an undetermined number of "innocent civilians," were killed in Banias on Tuesday.

More than 5,000 women gathered on the coastal road between Banias and Tartus to its south on Wednesday to demand the release of those arrested.

The London-based SOHR said in a statement that hundreds of those arrested had been released on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

But it added "some of those freed said they had been horribly tortured by their jailers. Others said they had never taken part in any demonstration or engaged in any kind of political action and did not know why they had been arrested."

Reliable casualty figures are impossible to obtain in Syria, but Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that at least 130 people had been killed up until then.

Officials have put the death toll at closer to 30 and blamed the violence on armed groups and foreigners seeking to divide the ethnically and religiously diverse country.