BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Calm returned to Lebanon’s largest prison on Friday, a day after scores of inmates rioted, set their clothes on fire and took guards hostage to press demands for better conditions and reduced sentences.
Thursday’s riots by some 200 inmates at Roumieh prison east of the capital Beirut were the most serious revolt ever at Lebanon’s central prison, An-Nahar newspaper reported Friday.
Under an agreement reached after nine hours of negotiations between senior police officers and representatives of the rioting detainees, seven policemen taken hostage by the inmates were released unharmed at 2 a.m. Friday, according to a police statement.
Security officials said Thursday that eight guards were taken hostage during the rioting. There was no immediate explanation for the difference.
The prisoners returned to their cells Friday amid tight security inside and outside the prison to prevent additional rioting, the police statement said.
Interior Minister Hassan Sabei acknowledged overcrowding at Roumieh prison and promised to improve the inmates’ conditions by expanding the prison complex. “The government is trying to take necessary measures to expand the prison to provide more space for the prisoners,” Sabei said in an interview Friday with Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation television.
The Roumieh prison was built 40 years ago to hold 1,000 inmates, but more than 3,000 are currently held there. The prisoners include four former generals held in connection with the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and members of the al-Qaeda-inspired Fatah Islam militant group.
Sabei said Friday that the rioting was not linked to the presence of the four generals in a nearby building. “The four officers are in a building entirely different from the building where the revolt occurred,” he said. The Fatah Islam members were also held in a location away from the rioting, according to security officials.
A similar incident occurred in Roumieh in 1998, when prisoners protesting overcrowded conditions held five guards hostage. Seven people, including five prisoners, were injured when police stormed the prison and freed the guards at the time.