DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad declared a general amnesty Monday for prisoners in the country, state media reported, less than a week after he was re-elected to another seven-year term amid a bloody civil war.
It was not clear how many – if any – prisoners would be freed by the presidential decree. The government has issued several limited pardons for various offenses since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011 that have largely been seen as an effort to create the image of a compassionate leadership.
The official SANA news agency did not say whether the amnesty announced Monday would apply to the tens of thousands of anti-government activists, protesters, opposition supporters and their relatives that international rights groups say are imprisoned in the country. However, SANA’s report suggested the decree would reduce some prisoners’ sentences without freeing them.
The decree appeared to cover at least some of those who have taken up arms against the government, including foreign fighters, according to SANA. Foreign gunmen 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 (the hostages) over to the authorities” within a month.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Syrian lawmaker 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 supporters, Khalil said. The government routinely refers to rebels as terrorists.
“All those who committed errors against their homeland will benefit,” 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 insurgency and later morphed into a full-fledged civil war. The conflict, which has killed more than 160,000 people and forced 2.7 million people abroad, threatens to engulf the wider region.
Already, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided substantial support to the rebellion, while Iran, Russia and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah have backed the Assad government.
Qatar’s prime minister, Sheik Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, on Monday called on the United Nations Security Council to insist on a cease-fire in Syria.
“This crisis, in both its political and humanitarian sides, reveals the inability of the international community in finding a political solution so far, so it is incumbent on the international community, especially the Security Council, to act urgently and declare a decision of cease-fire for the security of the Syrian people and the stability of the entire region,” he told a conference in Doha, according to a transcript carried on the official Qatar News Agency.
The prospects for such a truce are dim at best. The Syrian opposition and the government held two rounds of peace talks earlier this year without making any significant headway. Those talks were not accompanied by a cease-fire.
Also Monday, 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 Sunday 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 3-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.
Surk reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid and Ryan Lucas in Beirut, and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.