BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government released 13 female detainees, an official and an activist group said Wednesday, in a move that appeared to be part of an ambitious regional prisoner exchange.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the women walked out of the headquarters of the Damascus provincial government Tuesday morning, but hasn't been able to contact them. A Syrian government official confirmed the women's release, but declined to provide further details. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to brief the media.
It was not immediately clear whether the women released were part of a complicated hostage swap last week brokered by Qatar and the Palestinian Authority that saw Syrian rebels release nine Lebanese Shiite Muslims, while Lebanese gunmen simultaneously freed two Turkish pilots.
Lebanese officials have said a third part of the deal called for the Syrian government to free a number of women detainees to meet the rebels' demands.
The agreement illustrated how far Syria's civil war, now in its third year, has spilled across the greater Middle East. It also 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.
Syria's crisis began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad, and slowly turned into an insurgency and then a full-blown civil war. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict, while another 2 million have sought refuge from the violence abroad.
On Wednesday, rebels and government forces clashed for the third consecutive day in the Christian town of Sadad north of Damascus, forcing desperate residents to flee.
The Observatory said fighters from the two al-Qaida-linked groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, captured a checkpoint that gave them control of the western part of the town. It said frightened residents were heading north to the central city of Homs some 55 kilometers (35 miles) away.
The rebels appear to have targeted Sadad because of its strategic location near the main highway north from Damascus rather than because it is inhabited primarily by Christians. But Islamic extremists among the rebels are hostile to Syria's Christians minority, which has largely backed Assad during the conflict. Other al-Qaida-linked fighters have damaged and desecrated churches in areas they have overrun.
In The Hague, the organization tasked with overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons program said its inspectors have visited 18 out of 23 sites declared by the government. The group said it expected to meet a Nov. 1 deadline to make all of the declared chemical weapons production facilities in the country inoperable.
Three teams of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had carried out "functional destruction activities" at almost all the sites, spokesman Michael Luhan said. The teams of inspectors have had "good access" to sites so far, and the Syrian government was cooperating, he said.
The OPCW is racing to meet the mid-2014 deadline set by the U.N. Security Council for ridding Syria of its chemical weapons. It is the tightest deadline in the organization's history, and the job is made all the more difficult by having to navigate a bloody civil war.
Associated Press writer Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.