BEIRUT — Syrian authorities have released more than 500 prisoners accused of involvement in anti-regime activities, state TV reported Thursday, in what appeared to be another gesture to comply with the Arab League plan to end the regime's 9-month-old crackdown on dissent.
The plan, being monitored by about 100 Arab League observers now in Syria, requires President Bashar Assad's regime to remove security forces and heavy weapons from cities, start talks with opposition leaders and free political prisoners. The League claims it has won some concessions from Syria, including the pullout of heavy military weaponry from cities and the release of thousands of prisoners.
However, Syria's opposition is accusing the regime of misleading the monitors by taking them to areas loyal to the government, changing street signs to confuse them, painting army vehicles blue to look like those of police and sending supporters into rebellious neighborhoods to give false testimony.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said Tuesday Syria had released about 3,500 detainees in recent weeks. And state television said Thursday another 552 had been released. But activists said Syria was still holding at least 25,000 political detainees.
The figures are impossible to verify, with Assad's regime continuing to bar almost all foreign journalists or human rights groups from entering Syria even though that is one of the stipulations in the Arab League plan. Assad agreed to the plan on Dec. 19.
The Arab League has acknowledged that its plan has failed to stop violence. Activists have reported nearly 400 deaths since the monitors began work last week.
The U.N. said several weeks ago that more than 5,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March. In the weeks that followed, hundreds more have died, according to activists.
On Thursday, a team of monitors visited the tense Damascus suburb of Arbeen and two village in the southern province of Daraa, state TV said.
Activist groups reported continued shooting of protesters Thursday, with at six people killed. Two died in the central province of Homs and four in the eastern region of Deir el-Zour, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said security forces killed 10 people Thursday.
The latest prisoner release was believed to be the second prisoner release in a week. Last week, authorities released 755 political detainees and hundreds were also released in previous weeks, according to state media.
An Arab League official said the observers have not reported or complained about being misled by the regime. He said the Syrian opposition is making pre-emptive statements, fearing the regime might try to mislead the monitors.
Addressing the opposition's complaint about painting military vehicles blue to appear as police vehicles— something that has been seen on amateur videos — the official said: "Observers know what is for the army and what is for police." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
On Wednesday, Elaraby told reporters in Cairo that the League will not cut short the observers mission in Syria. An Arab diplomat said Tuesday that the 22-member organization would consider pulling out of Syria because the killings were continuing despite the observers' presence.
The observers have come under criticism from activists and a pan-Arab group, the Arab Parliament, who accuse them of giving cover to the regime to continue killing mostly peaceful, unarmed protesters.
The observer mission's Sudanese chief, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, has raised particular concern because he served in key security positions under Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted under an international arrest warrant for committing genocide in Darfur. The opposition wants al-Dabi removed from the mission.
Critics also say the mission is far too small — and too dependent on government escorts — to be effective. The regime says the escorts are vital to the monitors' personal safety.
The government has long contended that the turmoil in Syria this year is not an uprising by reform-seekers but the work of terrorists and foreign-backed armed gangs — a contention most international observers dismiss as an attempt by an autocratic regime to terrify its citizens into abandoning the revolt.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue