The exchange of prisoners has been a key issue as the two warring sides meet for peace talks in Switzerland for the first time during the three-year Syrian civil war. The opposition said it has compiled a list of 47,000 missing citizens, including hundreds of women and children, while the government has also accused the opposition of holding thousands of detainees.
The Syrian government denies it holds children, and information minister Omran al-Zoubi claimed on Monday that even child combatants recruited by rebel groups were not arrested. However, rights organizations said scores of child detainees, held in inhumane conditions in Syrian jails, remain a major concern.
With some detained during an evacuation in the Damascus suburbs last year, Homs residents say they fear that a similar fate may await individuals who take advantage of a government offer made on Sunday to allow women and children safe passage out of besieged areas of the city.
Minors on the opposition list of those being held include the six children of Rania Abbasi, a dentist and former chess champion, who were allegedly detained with their mother during a raid on their Damascus home in March last year.
The youngest was just one year old at the time, the oldest 13. Their father had been arrested at a checkpoint two days earlier, according to the opposition Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria, which said that it did not know the motive for the arrest.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it has received reports from former prisoners of infants being held in government detention centers with their mothers, as well as children as young as 10 being held on their own.
“We know that the Syrian government does not discriminate when it comes to holding not only children but women and the elderly as well,” said Lama Fakih, a Syria researcher for HRW. “We know quite young children are being held in overcrowded cells without adequate access to food, water and medical treatment.”
Countries including the United States have urged Syrian authorities to let aid convoys into war ravaged Homs, where residents say they have been under siege for 20 months, rather than instead insisting women and children leave.
Residents of the Damascus suburb of Moadamiya say minors were detained during evacuations there in October last year, which were brokered after reports of children starving to death.
Ahmed Mahmoud, 28, said his 16-year-old cousin was among them. “He took the bus out but I was told he was ordered off and taken to the military airbase,” he said. “We haven’t heard from him since.”
Syrian Opposition Coalition spokesman Oubai Shahbandar described the detention of children by Syrian authorities as “systematic.”
“The women and children are dying to leave this area,” said Ahmed Abu Loui, a media activist in the Old City of Homs. “But we cannot trust the regime promises, they will betray any promises they make.”
Rights groups have also criticized more mainstream rebel groups for violations against minors, including the use of child soldiers. Meanwhile al-Qaeda-linked groups are believed to hold dozens of journalists and aid workers, and to have executed at least one child.
Speaking to Syrian state television in Geneva, Zoubi said that the Syrian authorities do not arrest children. If those involved in armed groups are apprehended their age and the “moral and psychological influences they were subjected to” are taken into account, he said.
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