NICOSIA (AFP) — At least 25 inmates were shot dead by Syrian security forces during a riot by political detainees at a prison in mountains outside Damascus on Saturday, a human rights group said.
"Islamist prisoners started a riot inside the prison this morning," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement received in Nicosia, quoting a political prisoner in the Saydnaya jail contacted by mobile phone.
"Shooting is continuing against the prisoners," the London-based group said, adding that a number of inmates had climbed the roof of the military prison north of Damascus to escape the violence.
Helicopters were buzzing the facility near the hilltop village of Saydnaya, about 30 kilometres (19 miles) from the capital.
The Observatory, which is close to the opposition, said initially that the number of dead was 10 but a spokesman later telephoned AFP to say that the toll had risen to 25.
The Observatory said about 400 detained soldiers were being held hostage in the prison as bargaining chips to apply pressure on Syrian authorities.
The group said it was also receiving phone calls from relatives of prisoners asking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to intervene to stop the clashes in Saydnaya, an ancient town with biblical connections.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian authorities.
The Saydnaya prison is one of the biggest in Syria and houses mainly Islamist political prisoners.
Syria has launched a crackdown against dissidents in recent months, drawing strong criticism from the West particularly since the arrests are being carried out under emergency laws in force since 1963.
At least 14 signatories of a December petition calling for radical democratic change in Syria have been rounded up, including former MP Riad Seif.
The prison riot comes just a week before Assad is due in Paris to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy on July 12, signalling a resumption of high-level contacts between Paris and Damascus.
Assad is among about 40 foreign leaders who will be in Paris for a July 13 summit that will see European countries come together with states in the Mediterranean region including Arab nations and Israel to improve cooperation.
Saydnaya prison was built in 1987 to accommodate 5,000 detainees but can take up to 10,000, according to the Syrian Human Rights Committee, another non-governmental organisation.
It says the facility was originally built for common law concicts but also takes in political prisoners.
In 2004, it held several hundred Muslim Brothers as well as leftists, Palestinians, Islamist militants and detained Syrian army soldiers, according to the rights group.
Saydnaya is the site of an Antiochian Orthodox convent dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, which was founded in 547 AD and houses a rare icon of her believed to have been painted by the author of one of the gospels, St Luke.
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