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Riot at Syrian prison threatens to escalate

Special to The Times

A deadly days-long standoff between inmates and security forces threatened to escalate at a Syrian military prison known for holding Islamist and political dissidents, human rights observers said Tuesday.

According to rights groups in touch with prisoners and other sources in Syria, security forces have already killed at least 25 inmates and wounded as many as 100 at the Saydnaya prison on the outskirts of Damascus, the capital.

The violence erupted Saturday after inmates rioted to protest a sweep of the prison by guards, the rights groups said. The police responded by firing on the prisoners.

“The last ultimatum made by the Syrian security forces at the prison to the protesting prisoners demanded them to end their disobedience before Tuesday dawn,” said a statement posted on the website of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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Authorities warned they would carry out an assault “at any human cost” if prisoners did not surrender, the statement said.

The fate of the inmates remained largely unknown late Tuesday after all telephone contact with the prisoners ended early in the day.

On Sunday, Syrian authorities accused inmates of starting the riots.

“Prisoners sentenced for crimes of terrorism and extremism caused trouble,” they said in a statement published on the website of the official Syrian Arab News Agency, the last word from authorities on the matter. “They attacked their comrades during a prison inspection. . . . A security force unit immediately took action to remedy the situation and restore calm in the prison.”

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The statement did not specify casualties, but human rights activists said the toll was high. They also said that the standoff continued despite the government claim that calm had been restored.

“It’s a real massacre against political detainees from all backgrounds,” said Mohammed Maamoun Homsi, a Syrian activist who once served five years in jail and now monitors his homeland from Beirut.

“We think there could be as many as a hundred killed, judging from the activity of the ambulances rushing casualties into the military medical facility,” he said.

He alleged that the riots started when guards began to torment the prisoners and desecrate copies of the Koran. Most political prisoners in Syria are Islamic activists. The government is controlled by the secular Baath Party.

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During the initial uprising, prisoners seized more than 300 soldiers as hostages, said Aussama Monajed, a London-based member of a Syrian dissident group, the Movement for Justice and Development, who based his account on phone conversations with prisoners.

Authorities dispatched riot troops and tanks to subdue the prisoners with tear gas and then began negotiations for the release of the hostages, he added. Prisoners fled to the roof to escape the tear gas and have offered to surrender if the interior minister will guarantee their safety.

Human rights groups have not been allowed into the prison.


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