Syrian prisoners released ahead of Arab League meeting

November 15, 2011

Syria announced it had released 1,180 prisoners on Tuesday, including a prominent dissident, suggesting the government of President Bashar al-Assad was scrambling to avert tough sanctions at a meeting of Arab ministers on Wednesday.

But as Turkey announced additional measures to squeeze the Syrian economy and countries of the Gulf rejected Syria’s appeals for an emergency Arab summit that would give Assad a chance to defend himself, it appeared the gesture had come too late.

The Arab gathering in the Moroccan capital Rabat on Wednesday is expected to affirm a decision Saturday to suspend Syria’s membership in the Arab League and institute a series of other measures that signal Arab states have lost patience with Assad’s brutal efforts to suppress an eight-month-old uprising and are looking for ways to replace him.

In Cairo, Arab League representatives launched discussions with members of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group, on ways to prepare for a transition to a post-Assad era. Russia also summoned top leaders of the Council to Moscow, but merely urged them to begin negotiations with Assad.

Turkey also indicated that it was preparing to step up its efforts to pressure Assad, announcing it would suspend plans to prospect for oil in Syria. It also threatened to cut off Syria’s electricity supply.

Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyep Erdogan called on Assad to apologize for attacks by crowds of his supporters on the Turkish embassy in Damascus and consulates in Lattakia and Aleppo launched overnight Saturday to express anger at the Arab League’s decision.

“Bashar, you who have thousands of people in jail, must find those who attacked the Turkish flag and punish them,” he said, addressing the Syrian president by his first name.

But he also seemed to suggest that Turkey is still holding out hope that Assad will change course. “It is not among our expectations that the Assad regime meet all the demands of the (Syrian) people,” he said. “Our wish is that it… does not enter this road of no return, which leads to the edge of the abyss.”

The prisoner release was announced in a brief sentence posted on the Web site of the official SANA news agency. Freeing the tens of thousands believed to be detained during the crackdown was one of the requirements of an Arab League peace plan with which Syria has so far failed to comply, releasing until now only 553 prisoners.

Among those released Tuesday was Kamal Labwani, a veteran dissident who was in the midst of serving a 15-year sentence.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said five people were killed by security forces on Tuesday, by far the lowest number since Syria said it would comply with the Arab peace plan two weeks ago.

Instead, the announcement of the plan precipitated a fresh onslaught of attacks by Syrian security forces as they appeared to set about trying to quell the uprising for good. Human rights groups say at least 400 people have been killed since the plan went into effect November 2.

One of the worst eruptions of violence came on Monday, when at least 80 people died, according the Observatory’s Rami Abdelrahman. Among them were 34 soldiers and 12 defected soldiers killed in a major confrontation in the southern province of Daraa apparently triggered when the defectors attacked an army camp, he said. Syrian security forces later went on a rampage and shot dead 24 civilians in a nearby village, he said.

The figures could not be independently confirmed, but similar reports of the attack from other activists illustrated the risk that the Syrian revolt is only likely to become more militarized as it drags on.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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