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Assad’s Forces Break Yearlong Rebel Siege of Prison

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Government forces broke through a protracted rebel siege of one of Syria’s largest prisons on Thursday, dealing yet another blow to their opponents and highlighting the suffering that the country’s war has brought to those caught between the warring parties.

Islamist rebels, including members of the Nusra Front, Syria’s Qaeda affiliate, surrounded the Aleppo central prison more than a year ago and had repeatedly sought to storm its walls and engaged in fierce battles with guards in an attempt to free the prisoners.

But Syrian state television aired quite a different image on Thursday — Syrian soldiers inside the prison, walking among emaciated prisoners and standing beside guards who had been stuck inside, many with scraggly beards and long hair.

The break of the siege, in a part of Aleppo Province that had until recently been a rebel stronghold, is a new setback for the opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, who have failed to unify and have lost ground in recent months.

The advances by Mr. Assad’s army and its allies from Hezbollah, the militant Shiite organization in Lebanon, come as Mr. Assad prepares for a presidential election on June 3 that will almost certainly award him another seven-year term.

Because of recent legal changes, other candidates will appear on the ballot for the first time since Mr. Assad took over from his father, Hafez, in 2000. But none of Mr. Assad’s opponents are considered to have any chance of winning. The United States and the Syrian opposition have dismissed the vote as a sham.

Images broadcast Thursday on Syrian state television showed soldiers, accompanied by a reporter, approaching the prison, welcomed by scores of unkempt guards hiding behind walls of sandbags. Some raised their arms and cheered as the army approached.

Inside the prison, one guard told the channel that hunger and illness had been rampant. The station also showed dozens of female prisoners behind bars, clapping their hands at the soldiers’ arrival.

The conditions at the prison had been worsening for months.

Although the Syrian Arab Red Crescent had been delivering food, prisoners died each month, because of hunger or illness or in clashes between rebels and prison guards, according to a United Nations official involved in monitoring conditions there.

Most of the more than 2,500 prisoners there are sentenced criminals or detainees awaiting trial, the official said, but 53 are political prisoners, most of them Islamists incarcerated before the uprising against Mr. Assad started in 2011.

It was primarily these prisoners that the rebels had sought to free, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the news media.

Antigovernment activists in Aleppo also reported that the army had broken the siege, although it was unclear whether government forces had established full control of the area.

At The Hague, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the monitoring group that has been helping oversee Mr. Assad’s promise to eradicate the military’s chemical weapons stockpile, reported Thursday that the final 100 tons of chemicals to be exported for destruction had been packed and ready for transport to the port of Latakia.

But the organization’s director general, Ahmet Uzumcu, said the Syrian authorities had informed him that the route to Latakia remained too risky to move the chemicals.

The United States and other critics of Mr. Assad have accused him of repeatedly falling behind in a timetable for eliminating the chemical arsenal. Under a United Nations Security Council resolution unanimously approved last September, the chemicals must be destroyed by June 30.

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(via NY Times)