DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria’s president on Tuesday slashed prison terms by three quarters for an unspecified number of rebels convicted as “terrorists,” as fierce battles raged around the airport of Aleppo, the country’s largest city.
Bashar Assad also used a presidential decree to reduce the sentences of an unknown number of convicted criminals ahead of the country’s independence day, state media reported. The Syrian leader has made similar gestures since the country’s 2-year-old crisis began, including pardons for those convicted of acts against the state.
The opposition has dismissed such decrees as political theater, saying that many dissidents remain in Syrian jails. The government denies there is an uprising in the country and refers to rebels as terrorists carrying out a foreign conspiracy.
Syria does not disclose statistics on prisoners, although its jails are believed to hold tens of thousands, including thousands of political prisoners. State TV quoted Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi as saying that the pardon will lead to the release of about 7,000 people who committed different types of crimes.
On Monday, a Syria-based human rights group said in a report that the military unit in charge of protecting Damascus is holding hundreds of suspected regime opponents in secret prisons. The claims could not be independently confirmed, but several rights groups say thousands of opposition members, protesters and their families have been detained since the revolt against Assad’s rule began in March 2011.
Tuesday’s presidential decree is also to include those convicted of criminal acts before April 16, state TV and the official news agency said. Convicts on death row would have their sentences reduced to life imprisonment with hard labor, while those with incurable diseases or advanced age would be pardoned. It also renewed a call for rebels to turn over their weapons, saying those who do so will be pardoned.
The move came as the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels launched an attack on the Wadi Deif and Hamidiya military bases in the northwestern province of Idlib. The bases had previously been under a months-long rebel siege.
On Saturday, government forces punched through the blockade and re-opened a supply line to the area after they killed more than 20 rebels in an ambush. During the siege, the military had been forced to drop supplies in by helicopter because rebels controlled the surrounding area.
The Observatory also reported heavy fighting around the international airport in Aleppo, Syria’s former commercial capital. It said there were casualties on both sides, but did not have any immediate figures.
Rebels have been trying for months to capture the facility, which has been closed to flights because of the fighting.
Aleppo itself has been carved into rebel- and regime-held zones since anti-Assad fighters launched an offensive on the city last summer. Shelling, bombings and fierce daily clashes have left much of the city — once considered one of Syria’s most beautiful — a mass of shattered buildings and rubble since then.
On Tuesday, the Syrian Red Crescent recovered 31 bodies between the Aleppo neighborhoods of Sakhour and Midan, according to the Aleppo Media Center activist group. The Observatory also reported the discovery of 31 bodies in the same location.
Both groups said the dead had been killed by snipers in recent months, but because of the location of the bodies they couldn’t be retrieved for burial until now.
An amateur video posted online by the Aleppo Media Center showed what appeared to be 31 body bags placed on the ground. A small group of people, some of them wearing masks over their nose and mouth, examine some of the bodies.
The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting of the events depicted.
Meanwhile the Syrian National Coalition, Syria’s main opposition group, said in a statement that Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group, a strong ally of Assad, has been targeting villages near the Lebanese border for the past four weeks.
“We call upon the Lebanese government to take action against Hezbollah’s aggressions and do everything within their means to ensure the safety of the innocent civilians on the Syrian Lebanese border,” the SNC statement said.
Hezbollah denies its members are fighting in Syria, saying that Lebanese Shiites are defending Syrian border villages that have been inhabited by Lebanese for decades.
Over the weekend, two people were killed by rocket fire that hit the Lebanese side from Syria. Hezbollah accused rebels of firing the rockets.
And late on Monday, Syria’s state-run news agency said rebels ambushed the correspondent of Iran’s Arabic-language Al-Alam TV channel who was covering events in the Damascus’ suburb of Darayya. It said Mazen Salmo is in stable condition after having sustained wounds to the head.
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Ryan Lucas contributed from Beirut.