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US Rights Group Says Syria Hiding Detainees

Mariam Karouny

A demonstrator against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad holds up a sign that reads: "Tribute to the heroes of Qamishli" during a gathering in Homs December 13, 2011. Security forces shot dead 17 people in Syria on Tuesday and rebels killed seven police in an ambush, activists said, after the U.N. human rights chief put the death toll from nine months of protest against President Bashar al-Assad at 5,000. Picture taken December 13, 2011. (REUTERS/Handout)

BEIRUT - Syrian authorities moved hundreds of detainees to military sites off-limits to Arab League monitors, Human Rights Watch said, as observers began a mission to assess whether Syria has ended its violent crackdown on anti-government protests.

A report by the U.S.-based group urged the observers, who began their mission in the flashpoint city of Homs, to insist on full access to all sites used for detention.

The report issued late on Tuesday is based on interviews with a Syrian security official and witnesses, including a detainee and residents in Homs who said they saw heavily guarded buses leave several prisons, leading them to suspect that they were moving detainees.

The security official told HRW that he received orders to assist with an "irregular detainee transfer" after Damascus agreed to admit the monitors under a deal which calls for an end to violence, the withdrawal of troops from the streets, the release of prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.

The report also said that police identification cards had been issued to many soldiers to give the appearance that police and not the military were patrolling the streets.

"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.

"Syria's subterfuge makes it essential for the Arab League to draw clear lines regarding access to detainees, and be willing to speak out when those lines are crossed."

A Syrian security official told HRW he estimated that on December 21 and 22 approximately 400 to 600 detainees were moved out of his detention facility to other places of detention.

"The transfers happened in installments. Some detainees were moved in civilian jeeps and some in cargo trucks," the official said.

He said that officials who accompanied the detainees out of the facility told him they were being taken to a military missile factory in Zaidal, just outside Homs.

Syria has been rocked by nine months of unrest as security forces struggle to crush protesters seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

What began as a peaceful protest movement has become increasingly violent as an armed insurgency has emerged.

The violence has turned parts of Homs into a war-zone that threatens a slide into civil war.

Syrian security forces have released at least 1,000 people but activists say tens of thousands remain in detentions around the country.

It is difficult to verify events as most foreign journalists are banned from the country.

"My role was inside the prison, gathering the detainees and putting them in the cars. My orders from the prison director were to move the important detainees out," the security source told HRW.

In a video clip posted by activists on Youtube a veiled woman rushed up to the head of the monitoring mission in Homs and screamed: "We want the detainees."

Syria says it is fighting foreign-backed terrorists who have killed more than 2,000 of its security forces.

More than 5,000 civilians and army deserters have been killed by Syrian forces, according to the United Nations.

In a move that may aim to show compliance with the Arab League agreement, Syrian television said on Wednesday the authorities had released 755 detainees "whose hands were not stained with Syrian blood."

(Reporting by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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