Syria frees 755 detained in crackdown
A protester in the flahspoint central Syrian city of Homs throws a tear gas bomb back towards security forces, on December 27, 2011. / AFP/Getty Images
BEIRUT - The Syrian government released Wednesday 755 prisoners detained over the past nine months in the regime's crackdown on dissent as observers toured a flashpoint city to see whether authorities were complying with an Arab plan to stop the bloodshed that has killed thousands.
The prisoners' release, reported by the state-run news agency SANA, followed accusations by Human Rights Watch that Syrian authorities were hiding hundreds of detainees from the observers now in the country.
The New York-based group said the detainees have been transferred to off-limits military sites and urged the observers to insist on full access to all sites used for detention.
HRW's report, issued late Tuesday, echoes charges made by Syrian opposition members that thousands of detainees were being transferred to military sites ahead of the observers' visit.
Syrian officials have said the Arab League monitors will have unrestricted access to trouble spots but will not be allowed to visit sensitive military sites.
"Syria has shown it will stop at nothing to undermine independent monitoring of its crackdown," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. She said it was essential for the Arab League "to draw clear lines" regarding access to detainees, and be willing to speak out when those lines are crossed.
SANA said the prisoners released Wednesday did not include those with "blood on their hands."
Last month, Syrian authorities released 2,645 prisoners in three batches but activists and critics say thousands more who were picked up in the past months remain in jail.
The Arab observers kicked off their one month mission in the violence-wracked country with a visit on Tuesday to Homs the first time Syria has allowed outside monitors to the city at the heart of the anti-government uprising.
A local official in Homs told The Associated Press that a team of four observers were in the city on Wednesday as well, touring various districts. He declined to give his details and spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Homs residents said anti-government protesters were preparing for a second day of demonstrations, despite a massive security presence in the city.
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