By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Syria is on the verge of granting access for the first time to its prisons -- where thousands of activists and other civilians arrested in pro-democracy protests are believed to be held -- the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Friday.
In an exclusive interview with Reuters, the head of ICRC's delegation in Syria, Marianne Gasser, said that the independent humanitarian agency was finalizing details with senior Syrian authorities on its visits to detention centers.
"We are very confident that this access will be granted. The visits could begin shortly," Gasser said in a telephone interview from the capital Damascus. "We have never had access before."
ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger, who went to Damascus in June as the unrest grew, won an agreement in principle for the prison visits, marking the start of a high-level dialogue on the sensitive issue, according to Gasser.
The ICRC sought access for years to Syrian prisoners but stepped up its requests when the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad first erupted in March. Gasser attributed recent progress to having gained the confidence of Syrian authorities who have given the humanitarian agency unrestricted access to violence-hit areas in recent weeks.
For prison visits, the ICRC has insisted on its standard terms, including full access to all detention centers, the right to interview detainees in private and make follow-up visits.
In exchange for its access to detainees worldwide from Gaza to Guantanamo, the ICRC's confidential findings on the treatment of prisoners and their conditions of detention are shared only with detaining authorities.
Forces loyal to Assad opened fire to disperse protests demanding his removal on Friday despite a pledge that he had ended the crackdown on a five-month uprising in which 2,000 people have been killed, activists said.
More than 10,000 have been detained, often in mass arrests, rights groups and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay have said, but the ICRC has no estimate.
"It is very difficult to have figures for the number of people killed, wounded or arrested," said Gasser, a Swiss who leads a team of 10 foreign aid workers and 20 Syrians working closely with the Syrian Red Crescent.
U.N. human rights investigators, in a report issued on Thursday, said that the crackdown may be grounds for prosecutions for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. Arrests appear to be "random and widespread" and the fate of hundreds was unknown, it said.
Some male detainees were forced to strip naked for prolonged periods in their cells, while being otherwise tortured or interrogated, according to the U.N. report, based on extensive interviews with victims and witnesses.
Civilians have been arrested in operations that aimed to collectively punish residents of cities or towns perceived by authorities as being centers of activism, the U.N. report said.
Targeted, and mass arbitrary arrests were reported in Aleppo, Damascus, Deraa, Jisr al Shughour and Latakia, it said. Witnesses told the U.N. team that school yards and sports fields had been transformed into makeshift detention areas.
Gasser voiced concern that some wounded and sick have been prevented from receiving treatment, either out of fear of approaching hospitals or due to insecurity. "For the ICRC, all sick and wounded must be treated without delay," she said, speaking in French.
The ICRC now has unconditional access to all violence-hit areas and delivered food and wound-dressing supplies to Hama, Homs, Deir al-Zor and Deraa this month, she said. A mission to Latakia was planned shortly.
International condemnation of Assad is growing, including calls from the United States and European Union for him to step down. Washington has imposed sweeping new sanctions.
"In the event that needs grow, we will be ready to respond. If the situation deteriorates, the ICRC and Syrian Red Crescent will try to meet humanitarian needs," Gasser said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Rosalind Russell)