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Assad declares prisoners amnesty

Syrian president Bashar Assad has declared a general amnesty for prisoners in the country, state media reported.

It was not clear how many – if any – prisoners would be freed after the presidential decree, issued just five days after Assad had won a third, seven-year term in office amid the three-year-old civil war in his country.

The official SANA news agency did not say if the amnesty would apply to the tens of thousands of anti-government activists, protesters, opposition supporters and their relatives that international rights groups say are held in the country. However, SANA’s report suggested the decree would reduce prisoners’ sentences without freeing them.

The decree appears to cover at least some of those who have taken up arms against the government, including foreign fighters, according to SANA. They will not be prosecuted if they “surrender to the authorities within a month of the issuing of the decree”, the report said. Those behind taking hostages will also be pardoned, SANA said, if they “release their captives safely and without any ransom or hand (hostages) over to the authorities” within a month.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Syrian politician Issam Khalil called the decree “a gift from the president after he was elected for another term”.

The amnesty includes those who participated in the armed opposition, Mr Khalil said. The government routinely refers to rebels as terrorists.

“All those who committed errors against their homeland will benefit,” Mr Khalil said. “It will allow them to return to their normal lives.”

Syria’s pro-government Al Ikhbariya television station quoted the justice minister as saying that the presidential decree was issued in the “context of social tolerance and national unity”.

“(It comes) against the backdrop of the victories by the Syrian army,” minister Najem al-Ahmad said.

Assad’s forces have been on the offensive in several parts of Syria over the past year, capturing villages and towns the government previously lost to rebels.

A peaceful uprising that began against Assad’s rule turned into an armed conflict and later morphed into a full-fledged civil war. More than 160,000 people have been killed.

Also today, activists said fighting between rival jihadi groups in an oil-rich eastern Syrian province bordering Iraq had killing at least 45 fighters in two days.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the infighting flared up in eastern Deir el-Zour province yesterday and continued into Monday, pitting al Qaida affiliate the Nusra Front against an al Qaida breakaway group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The two jihadi groups were allies but had a falling out earlier this year and have since intermittently clashed in some of the fiercest rebel infighting in the three-year-old conflict. The Observatory said a month of infighting in Dier el-Zour alone has killed nearly 300 fighters and displaced 100,000 civilians.

Such infighting has weakened the Syrian opposition’s resolve to overthrow Assad.

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