Syrian protesters torch offices

Protesters against the government of Syria set fire to offices of the ruling party today while hundreds of political prisoners were released in a bid to appease the rioters.

Presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told reporters that demonstrators attacked a police station and offices of the Baath party in the town of Tafas, six miles (10km) north of the city of Daraa, epicentre of more than a week of anti-government protests.

The Baath party offices in the Mediterranean city of Latakia had also been targeted.

This afternoon, President Bashar Assad pulled back police and soldiers from Daraa and released hundreds of political prisoners in an attempt to appease demonstrators furious about the violent government crackdown on dissent.

Daraa has been the centre of protests, with more than a week of demonstrations leading to nationwide unrest yesterday when tens of thousands of protesters marched in cities across the country.

Abdul-Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian Human Rights League, said that 260 political prisoners had been released.

He said that most of those released were Islamists and 14 Kurdish detainees were also let free. Most had been imprisoned at Saidnaya, a prison in a Damascus suburb that houses political detainees. He said no further details were immediately available and there was no official confirmation.

Mr Rihawi called the move a "positive step" and urged authorities to release all political detainees.

Britain has condemned the violence in Syria with Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt saying that he was "deeply concerned" by the use of force in Deraa.

He said in a statement: "I have been watching closely the situation in Syria, and am deeply concerned by the use of force against demonstrators.

"I condemn the violence that has resulted in a large number of deaths in Deraa. All Syrians have a right to express their views peacefully.

"I call on the Syrian government to respect the people's right to peaceful protest and to address their legitimate grievances.

"I call for restraint on all sides but in particular from the Syrian security forces. Violence is never the right answer to these situations."

Mr Burt noted that one of President Bashar Assad's advisers had said that the government was looking for political reform.

"I call on the Syrian government to implement these proposals without delay and to engage peacefully on the legitimate demands of the Syrian people, who will be looking for action to back up such statements," he said.

Amnesty International said at least 55 people are believed to have been killed during unrest in and around Deraa in the past week.

This is in addition to those killed in different parts of the country yesterday.

Philip Luther, deputy director for Middle East and North Africa, said: "The excessive force apparently again being used by security forces is the latest example of the Syrian authorities' appalling and brutal response to recent dissent, and make their pledge to investigate the violence sound rather hollow.

"If the words we heard from the Syrian government are to mean anything, they must immediately issue clear orders to restrain the security forces to prevent further loss of life."

The authorities on Thursday pledged to carry out reforms.