Syria executes 24 people over deadly forest fires


FILE PHOTO: A fire burns at a forest in Latakia province, Syria in this handout released by SANA on October 9, 2020. Picture taken October 9, 2020. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syria executed 24 people it said had set fires that swept swathes of forests mainly in the coastal province of Latakia, the ancestral home of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, the justice ministry said on Thursday .

Those executed on Wednesday were charged with committing "terrorist acts that led to death and damage to state infrastructure, public and private property," the ministry said.

It said 11 others were sentenced to life in prison on the same charges from dozens arrested at the end of last year who confessed to igniting the fires that began in September 2020 and lasted until mid-October.

Although executions are common in the tightly run country with a powerful security apparatus, it is rare to publicise such a large number of executions on a single day.

The justice ministry statement said tens of fires swept forests and farmland and burnt homes in dozens of villages and towns in Latakia and Tartous provinces and also the central province of Hama.

No details were provided on where and how the executions took place in a country where international human rights groups says many detainees are executed without trial and where security prisons have tens of thousands of detainees.

Assad visited the devastated rural areas near his ancestral home of Qardaha in Latakia, inhabited mainly by his minority Alawite sect that dominates the higher echelons of power in the security forces and army.

The huge fires caused tens of millions of dollars of losses in cultivated plots of mainly citrus, apples and olive trees that many poor Alawite farmers rely on to supplement meager low paid state jobs.

It also damaged a main part of the state-owned tobacco company that is a mainstay of the coastal area's economy.

State television showed alleged confessions of some of the culprits who said they were paid to set the deliberate fires.

The authorities had at the time blamed Syria's foreign and internal enemies for igniting the fires as part of what it said was economic warfare. The country's decade-old war has led to tens of thousands of deaths, displaced millions, and led to a refugee crisis.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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