Syrian military accused of killing 95 civilians


THE NEW York-based Human Rights Watch has accused the Syrian army of grave human rights abuses during operations to recapture rebel-held villages in northern Idlib province.

In an 11-page report, They Burned My Heart, released today, the rights body says investigators visiting a dozen towns and villages in Idlib between March 22nd and April 6th found that during fighting “security forces and pro-government militias killed at least 95 civilians, burned, destroyed and looted hundreds of houses and stores and arbitrarily detained dozens of people”.

The advocacy group holds that at least 35 of the killed civilians were “summarily executed”. While most were men, three were children. Of the nine cases documented, the largest single group of men and boys executed, numbering 19, were from the Ghazzal family in Taftanaz village. Witnesses told the watchdog many family members were fighters in the rebel Free Syrian Army and had been accused of murdering a local intelligence officer.

Human Rights Watch says both government troops and rebels had also been killed, but the organisation had focused on civilians.

Witnesses said the operation, carried out by the 76th armoured division backed up by intelligence officers, involved shelling from tanks and strafing from helicopters. They say the tanks and infantry advanced into towns and villages, where they remained for one to three days before moving on. In some places, rebels defended their positions; in others they withdrew once they saw they were outnumbered.

In some cases, civilians were killed by remote fire; in others fleeing civilians were killed, “indicating that government forces failed to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to take necessary precautionary measures to protect civilians”.

In the affected towns, the group found several hundred destroyed, damaged and burned houses, mosques and field hospitals where “destruction appeared to be deliberate”.

During the operation, dozens of civilians were also arrested, about two-thirds of whom remain in detention, their locations unknown, “raising fears that they had been subjected to enforced disappearance”. Some of those released said they had been abused and tortured.

The watchdog urges the UN Security Council to ensure the UN ceasefire mission deployed in Syria includes properly staffed and equipped human-rights experts who can safely and independently interview victims and document human-rights violations, protect them from retaliation, and ensure perpetrators are held accountable.

The Syrian government has not commented on the report. Damascus charges foreign-backed groups of waging an armed revolt and of killing more than 2,600 soldiers and law enforcement personnel. The UN says 9,000 people have died since the unrest began in mid-March last year.

In Syria, security forces reportedly suffered the largest number of fatalities since the UN ceasefire on April 12th. Fifteen were killed by rebels north of Aleppo while six died in clashes near Damascus and a civilian was killed in Deraa. The state news agency, Sana, said another member of the forces was slain and three wounded by a roadside bomb near Hama.

Meanwhile, Russia authorities blamed “terrorists” for the latest spate of bombings in Idlib and Damascus, and said they have mounted a campaign “to destabilise the situation” and disrupt implementation of the peace plan of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

While publicly opposing foreign interference and particularly military intervention in Syria, Russia has vocally supported Mr Annan’s peace plan and backed it in Security Council votes.

It has urged both sides to stop violence but has put most of the blame for violations of the ceasefire since April 12th on rebels, and accused them of seeking to create a pretext for foreign intervention against the government.

– (Additional reporting, Reuters)