In this photo, which AP obtained from Syrian official news agency SANA and which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, President Bashar Assad, right, gestures as he speaks during an interview with Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV, at the presidential palace in Damascus, Syria, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Syria’s president said Monday that the factors that would allow a landmark conference aimed at ending the country’s civil war do not yet exist, throwing further doubt on international efforts to hold peace talks that have already been repeatedly delayed. (AP Photo/SANA)
BEIRUT — The Syrian government has released 13 jailed women, an official and an activist group said today — a move that may be part of an ambitious regional prisoner exchange.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda-linked rebels strengthened their hold on an ancient Christian town north of Damascus, activists said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the women were released Tuesday morning from the headquarters of the Damascus provincial government, but said they had not been able to contact the women. The Observatory relies on a network of activists on the ground for its information.
The women may have been freed as part of a three-way exchange that began on Oct. 18. It saw Syrian rebels release nine Lebanese men held for a year and a half. Lebanese gunmen simultaneously released two Turkish pilots held since August.
Lebanese officials had said a number of imprisoned Syrian women were meant to be let go to meet the demands of the Syrian rebels. They were not immediately available for comment today.
It’s unclear how many women are held by Syria’s government, nor how usual it is for 13 to be released simultaneously. A Syrian government official confirmed the women were freed, but would not provide further details. He spoke anonymously, because he wasn’t authorized to talk to media.
The deal underscored how far Syria’s civil war, now in its third year, has spilled across the greater Middle East. It appeared to represent one of the more ambitious negotiated settlements to come out of the war, in which the rival factions remain largely opposed to any bartered peace.
Fighting continued in the town of Sadad and desperate residents tried to flee, as hard-line Muslim rebels clashed with soldiers and gunmen loyal to the government of President Bashar Assad.
The Observatory said fighters from the two al-Qaeda-linked groups, the Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, took a checkpoint that gave them control of the western part of the town. They also took control of the road leading to Damascus. Residents were fleeing in the opposite direction, to the central city of Homs some 56 kilometers (35 miles) away.
Residents told the group that five people were killed by snipers, three of them bleeding to death on the street. The residents believed the snipers were rebels.
Clashes have been ongoing in Sadad for the past three days. The fighters seem to have appears to have targeted Sadad because of its strategic location near the main highway north of Damascus, rather than because it is Christian. But hard-liners among the rebels are hostile to Syria’s Christian minority, who tend to be Assad loyalists. Other al-Qaeda-linked fighters have damaged and desecrated churches in areas they have seized.
The toll of the Syrian war has been crushing.
Almost a third of the population has fled its homes to escape violence or the resulting economic hardships. Of a pre-war population of 23 million people, at least 2 million Syrians have fled abroad, becoming refugees. Another 4.6 million are internally displaced within Syria. Around 100,000 people have been killed, the economy is in tatters, and the country’s delicate community fabric woven of different religious sects has been destroyed.
Even fleeing is no guarantee of safety. The Observatory reported today that a Syrian woman trying to escape to neighboring Jordan was raped and killed, along with her daughters aged one and three, allegedly by the man who was supposed to take her across the border. The Observatory said the incident occurred in the Zizon valley on the Jordanian-Syria border on Monday.
The man also stole all her cash: $87. Syrian residents found the bodies days later. The Observatory said Syrian rebels captured and killed a suspect who they said confessed to the crime.