UN report backs claims of war crimes in Syria


UNITED NATIONS investigators say they have expanded a secret list of Syrians and military units suspected of committing war crimes during the 18-month-old conflict between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his opponents.

The human rights investigators, led by Paulo Pinheiro, said they had gathered “a formidable and extraordinary body of evidence” and urged the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

Britain and France said the time had come for Syria to be referred to the Hague-based UN war crimes court, but diplomats noted this would require acceptance by veto-wielding countries Russia and China, which have blocked all previous efforts to condemn Syria.

The UN comments came as Human Rights Watch, the New York-based organisation that has repeatedly documented abuses by Syrian security forces, said rebel groups had subjected detainees to ill-treatment and torture, and committed extrajudicial or summary executions.

“Declarations by opposition groups that they want to respect human rights are important, but the real test is how opposition forces behave,” said Nadim Houry, its deputy Middle East director. “Those assisting the Syrian opposition have a particular responsibility to condemn abuses.”

In Syria itself, fighting raged in Aleppo as Lebanon declared two Syrian warplanes had launched rockets at farmland near a town 10km inside Lebanese territory. Security sources said the incursion was the most serious since Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, when Syrian troops intervened at the request of the government.

The incident preceded the scheduled meeting in Cairo of a regional contact group tasked with trying to resolve the Syrian conflict.

Representatives of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran were set to meet with UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi who last weekend held talks with Dr Assad, other officials and opposition groups in the Syrian capital, and spoke to rebel commanders.

A Free Syrian Army officer in Aleppo, Col Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi, accused the international community of granting the Assad regime “political cover” and rejected dialogue.

Domestic opposition groups hold that there must be dialogue, either direct or indirect, to initiate a transition from the authoritarian regime.

Abdel Azim the domestic opposition National Co-ordination Board, said his group was calling for a ceasefire, the release of prisoners, and provision of humanitarian access and had a detailed proposal for a transition.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair urged the West to “ratchet up the pressure” on president Assad with the aim of halting the bloodshed in his country, but did not call for outright military intervention.

In Geneva, Mr Pinheiro warned participants in the conflict that “there is no statute of limitations on these crimes”. He did not say whether any Syrian rebels were among those named on the list, which updated a confidential one his independent team had submitted to UN rights chief Navi Pillay in February.

Mr Pinheiro presented the team’s latest report, issued a month ago, saying Syrian government forces and allied militia had committed war crimes including murder and torture of civilians in what appeared to be a state-directed policy.

More than 20,000 people have been killed since the conflict began, 1.2 million are uprooted within Syria and more than 250,000 have fled abroad, the United Nations says.

Food, water and medical supplies had run short in areas subjected to Syrian government air strikes, shelling and siege, Pinheiro said, adding that investigators had received “numerous accounts . . . of civilians barely managing to survive”.

– (Additional reporting Reuters)