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Thousands of political prisoners 'released' in Syria

The Arab League said 3,500 prisoners had been freed – but killings of protesters continue in a bloody crackdown.

A Syrian woman at a candelight vigil in memory of those killed in the uprising, in Beirut, Lebanon.
A Syrian woman at a candelight vigil in memory of those killed in the uprising, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Image: Bilal Hussein/AP/Press Association Images

SYRIA’S GOVERNMENT HAS pulled its tanks out of major cities and freed about 3,500 prisoners – but security forces continue to kill protesters, the leader of the Arab League has said.

Nabil Elaraby said pro-regime snipers also continue to operate in Syria and he demanded a complete cease-fire. However, he also listed the achievements of the Arab League monitors since they began work.

The monitors are supposed to verify Syria’s compliance with an Arab League plan to stop the bloody nine-month-old crackdown on dissent. President Bashar Assad agreed to the plan on December 19.

But since the monitors began work last Tuesday, activists say government forces have killed more than 150 people, the vast majority of them unarmed, peaceful protesters.

“Yes, there is still shooting and yes there are still snipers,” Elaraby told a news conference in Cairo, where the Arab League is based. “Yes, killings continue. The objective is for us to wake up in the morning and hear that no one is killed. The mission’s philosophy is to protect civilians, so if one is killed, then our mission is incomplete.”

“There must be a complete cease-fire,” Elaraby said.

Tanks and artillery

But he also said tanks and artillery have been pulled out from cities and residential neighborhood, food supplies reached residents and bodies of dead protesters recovered.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the British-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed that tanks had withdrawn from Syrian cities. But he said residents reported that the weapons were still a threat.

“They can bring the tanks back and use them to fight,” Abdul-Rahman told The Associated Press.

Elaraby did not say when the heavy weapons pulled out of cities, but Abdul-Rahman said it was on Thursday.

The Arab League plan requires Assad’s regime to remove security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders, free political prisoners and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country.

Elaraby said Syria has objected to the admission into Syria of three unidentified television networks and that he has been told by the Damascus government that it has issued visas for a total of 150 media outlets. There was no independent confirmation of this.

Already, Syrian opposition groups and a pan-Arab group, the Arab Parliament, have been deeply critical of the mission, saying it is simply giving Assad cover for his crackdown.

More: Arab League’s own parliament calls on observers to leave Syria>

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