Syrian regime moves prisoners to likely targets of western military strikes

Exclusive: Syria has been moving detainees from court to military bases, putting opponents of the Assad regime in the line of fire, pro-democracy activists say. Phil Sands reports

A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus August 29, 2013. A team of U.N. experts left their Damascus hotel for a third day of on-site investigations into apparent chemical weapons attacks on the outskirts of the capital. Activists and doctors in rebel-held areas said the six-car U.N. convoy was scheduled to visit the scene of strikes in the eastern Ghouta suburbs. REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) *** Local Caption ***  SYR12_SYRIA-CRISIS-_0829_11.JPG
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GAZIANTEP, TURKEY // Syrian authorities have moved prisoners from their jail cells to installations the government believes could be targets of western military strikes, pro-democracy activists in Damascus and the opposition said yesterday.
Residents in the Syrian capital yesterday described seeing on Wednesday night fully loaded busses moving from the military court in Damascus to Mezzeh airbase on the southwestern tip of the city, a likely target for US missiles.
Across Damascus yesterday there were other signs of residents bracing for possible US-military strikes. People stockpiled food, water and fuel, with regime supporters and opponents alike fearful an already brutal war may be about to dramatically escalate.
The plight of thousands of prisoners held in a vast network of security facilities throughout the country is a major concern for their families and opposition activists.
"People are really scared about the prisoners' safety, and that the US will attack places where the prisoners are held," one pro-democracy activist said. "They are afraid because military bases are in built-up areas so civilians may be caught in the attacks.
"There is a lot of fear that prisoners will take the brunt of the attacks, and they have all seen the civilians killed by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan," she said.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition also warned that President Bashar Al Assad's forces were preparing to use the prisoners as human shields.
"Assad's fascist regime is amassing detained activists and civilians in prisons inside military locations that may be potential targets for foreign military forces," it said in a statement today.
"Using civilians as human shields is a blatant breach of International Humanitarian Law, and those responsible must be held accountable for crimes against humanity."
Thousands of protesters, rebels and dissidents have been arrested and held in detention since the start of the uprising in March 2011. Many of them remain missing, and are believed to be inside a shadowy network of security branches and military compounds.
The Syrian authorities have never allowed independent international organisations to inspect detention centres run by feared secret police units.
Elsewhere in Damascus yesterday, residents stayed away from work, opting instead to join the longer than normal queues at petrol stations and bakeries.
The Syrian government called the stockpiling of bread "unjustified", the state-run news agency Sana reported.
Syrian prime minister Wael Al Halaqi said state institutions should be on full alert to deal with any emergency. "The government is working hard to guarantee food and medical supplies and there are strategic reserves of all products and bakeries will continue to work round the clock to meet citizens' demands," he said, according to Sana.
Military forces in and around the capital were on the move, some residents said. Major checkpoints were reduced in size or taken away altogether, especially those manned by members of ultra-loyalist security units.
"Everyone is expecting the strikes soon, and there have been heavy military movements. The big checkpoint at Mezzeh military airport has been reduced," said a resident of the city, describing the usually heavily manned roadblock at the entrance to the facility.
"To be honest, everyone is afraid, no matter what side they are on. The regime is afraid of being hit and the anti-regime people are afraid the security will become even more brutal in response," he said.
Rumours have been circulating that key regime figures have fled to Dubai and that President Bashar Al Assad has gone into hiding in Iran.
More plausibly perhaps, high ranking security officers are said to have moved from their usual homes and offices, setting up temporary operation centres in schools and other civilian buildings, unlikely to be on a pre-prepared US-target list.
As Western powers contemplate a strike, some activists in Syria's opposition are having second thoughts about a possible US-led intervention.
Having demanded - and at times pleaded - for foreign military help in their fight against the army, air force and militia groups loyal Mr Al Assad, opposition activists and fighters now fear strikes could escalate rather than end the conflict.
"I've heard mixed reactions from people and I feel divided myself now that the Americans might intervene militarily," said an activist from Qusayr, a village on the border with Lebanon and the scene of heavy fighting between the rebel Free Syrian Army and regime troops, backed by Hizbollah. "Syrians are worried about what is going to happen and are suspicious of the timing."
During the June offensive there, in which regime forces besieged and then regained control over rebel-held Qusayr, many in Syria's opposition had called for foreign military aid.
"I'm personally divided about US intervention, I know we have been calling for it again and again but now we're worried. I suppose that it might get worse. For me it can't get any worse," the activist said. Members of his family were killed during the assault on Qusayr, with others fleeing.
Activists who responded to the poison gas attacks of last Wednesday in the eastern and south-western suburbs of Damascus, which killed hundreds of people and prompted the US administration to consider direct intervention, were more equivocal in supporting strikes.
"Everyone I've spoken to has been happy about it. They just want this over with and they want Assad to be hit," said an opposition activist who helped collect samples from the corpses of those killed by poison gases in Moadamiya, south-west of the capital.
"What worries us is that the Americans will just do a small symbolic strike and that Assad will be more brutal with us.
"If the Americans are going to do something, let it help us change this regime," he said.
Rebels involved with the Free Syrian Army were similarly supportive of US involvement, although radical Islamic factions aligned with Al Qaeda have been opposed, insisting they can win without the Americans.
"The US can do more damage to Assad's artillery, missiles, chemical weapons and aircraft in two hours than we can do in two months," said a member of a rebel brigade fighting in Latakia.
"Not having heavy weapons has been a real weakness for us, so a US strike could hit the things we are not able to attack ourselves, I hope it happens and I hope it comes soon," he said.
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