Syrian President Bashar Assad issued a general amnesty Tuesday that includes all political prisoners, Syrian State TV reported Tuesday, in a gesture aimed at calming protests that have rocked the country for weeks.
The TV said the amnesty covers all crimes committed before May 31. It could affect 10,000 people who have been rounded up during the protests, according to activists.
It includes prisoners belonging to political parties, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the report said.
The arrests are part of the government's crackdown on a two-month-old popular uprising demanding Assad's resignation. Assad has offered gestures before, like canceling hated emergency laws in effect for decades, but the demonstrations have grown and spread through much of the country.
Protesters charge that in spite of the cancellation of the laws that gave security officers the power to arrest people without formal justification, Assad's forces have rounded up thousands of people for protesting against his government.
Human rights groups say over 1,000 protesters have been killed in harsh crackdowns against protests, including live fire and tank shelling.
Significant in the Tuesday announcement was freeing members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, killed at least 10,000 people to put down an uprising by the Brotherhood 30 years ago.
Syria has a long history of imprisoning members of the group. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death in Syria, although this has not been enforced.
In recent years, President Bashar Assad's government has released several Muslim Brotherhood members along with other militants and pro-democracy dissidents, as part of his efforts to present a more democratic face to the world.
On Tuesday the Syrian military used heavy machine guns and artillery in renewed attacks on a town in the country's turbulent heartland. At least one person was killed and many others wounded, activists said.
The Local Coordination Committees in Syria, which helps organize and document the country's protests, said heavy gunfire was heard in Rastan, a few miles (kilometers) north of the central city of Homs and under attack since Sunday.
The committee said 16 people have been killed in the three-day crackdown in Homs province, scene of some of the largest anti-government demonstrations in recent weeks, activists said.
Details coming out of Syria are sketchy because the government has placed severe restrictions on the media and expelled foreign reporters, making it nearly impossible to independently verify accounts coming out of the country.