Human Rights Watch has accused Syria's regime of hiding hundreds of detainees held in its crackdown on dissent from Arab observers visiting the country to assess implementation of a peace deal.
"Syrian authorities have transferred perhaps hundreds of detainees to off-limits military sites to hide them from Arab League monitors now in the country," HRW said late Tuesday.
"The Arab League should insist on full access to all Syrian sites used for detention, consistent with its agreement with the Syrian government," the global watchdog said in a statement.
On Tuesday, a group of Arab League observers visited the besieged protest hub of Homs in central Syria, where the UN estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed in the crackdown since mid-March.
And the New York-based HRW cited a Syrian security officer in Homs as saying that he received orders from his prison director to assist with irregular detainee transfers.
The orders, he said, came after President Bashar al-Assad's government signed an Arab League protocol on ending violence on December 19, giving the observers access to places where detainees might be held.
"He estimated that on December 21 and 22 approximately 400 to 600 detainees were moved out of his detention facility to other places of detention," HRW said in the statement posted on its website.
"The transfers happened in installments," the unidentified official was quoted as saying.
"Some detainees were moved in civilian jeeps and some in cargo trucks. My role was inside the prison, gathering the detainees and putting them in the cars. My orders from the prison director were to move the important detainees out," he said.
The officer said that officials who accompanied the detainees out of the facility told him they were being taken to a military missile factory in Zaidal, just outside of Homs.
Human Rights Watch said his account was corroborated by other witnesses, including a detainee who said that among 150 people being held at one site were people who worked with journalists, defectors, and protesters.
"Syria has shown it will stop at nothing to undermine independent monitoring of its crackdown," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director.
"Syria’s subterfuge makes it essential for the Arab League to draw clear lines regarding access to detainees, and be willing to speak out when those lines are crossed."
The security officer also told HRW that the Syrian government was issuing police identification cards to its military officials, which the rights watchdog said was in violation of the Arab League accord.
"Dressing soldiers in police uniforms does not meet the Arab League call to withdraw the army," said Whitson.
"The Arab League needs to cut through Syrian government deception by pushing for full access to anywhere Syria is holding detainees."