Syria prison riot draws conflicting accounts


Reuters reports from Beirut:

Syrian authorities said on Sunday they had restored order at a military jail near Damascus after a riot, but dissidents said the protest was not over and that dozens of prisoners had been killed.

The riot broke out on Saturday at Sidnaya prison, a huge complex 30 km (19 miles) northwest of the capital Damascus that houses thousands of criminals, political prisoners and soldiers convicted of violating military rules.

“Several prisoners convicted of extremism and terror crimes created chaos… The issue required the interference of anti-riot units to restore calm,” the Syrian state news agency said.

The agency did not say whether there were any casualties. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization based in London, said Syrian security forces had killed dozens of prisoners during the riot.

The Observatory said Islamist prisoners, many of whom have been held at Sidnaya for years without trial, started the riot. It quoted witnesses as saying a hospital was filled with the wounded.

Syrian dissidents based in Beirut said prisoners were still rioting and that security forces remained heavily deployed around the prison and the hospital.

The Kurdish Coordination Committee, an umbrella group of Kurdish opposition parties in Syria, said the prisoners were only demanding better living condition.

“Syrian prisons are among the worse in the world. We do not think the demands of the protesters exceeded asking for better conditions and other humanitarian demands,” a statement by the group said.

Syria, which has been ruled by the secular Baath Party since 1963, holds thousands of Islamists and other political prisoners, including writers and human rights advocates. International human rights groups say random arrests and torture are common.

The Baath Party, which put down an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 in the city of Hama, has shown limited tolerance toward Islamists in recent years, with Washington accusing the Damascus government of allowing Islamist fighters to infiltrate into Iraq from Syria.