Syrian opposition fighters killed 190, says watchdog

Human Rights Watch believes two-week attack on villages in August was sectarian

Syrian opposition fighters massacred at least 190 civilians and took more than 200 hostages during an August military operation against a dozen villages in rural Latakia province, Human Rights Watch has reported.

The victims, including women and children, belonged to the heterodox Shia Alawite sect, the community of President Bashar al-Assad, indicating the offensive had sectarian motivation. In a 105-page report, You Can Still See their Blood: Executions, Indiscriminate Shootings, and Hostage Taking by Opposition Forces in Latakia Countryside, HRW said at least 67 of the dead were "executed or unlawfully killed" in the attack near the coastal city of Latakia.

Entire families were killed in their homes or while fleeing, and victims had multiple gunshot or stabbing wounds, the report said. Further investigation was needed to determine whether the remainder were intentionally or indiscriminately killed in the largest atrocity attributed to opposition forces. HRW found that 20 armed opposition groups, including units of the western-backed Free Syrian Army, took part in the operation which lasted two weeks.

Fighter groups
However, it named five groups, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis); Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar; the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra; Ahrar al-Sham; and Suquor al-Izz, a faction comprised of foreign fighters, as carrying out the unlawful killings for which their commanders "may bear criminal responsibility". The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar are "still holding the hostages", mostly women and children, the report said. "The findings strongly suggest that the killings, hostage taking, and other abuses rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity."


War crimes
The US-based organisation has previously documented war crimes committed by Syrian government and pro-government forces and called on the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

Publication of the report coincided with an order issued by al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri calling on followers to avoid killing Shias, Christians, Hindus and Sufis and "focus on striking" the US, Israel and its allies in the region.

Syrian lawmaker Fayez Sayegh praised the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, currently involved in the destruction of the country's 1,000-ton arsenal.

Mr Sayegh said the award demonstrates the "credibility" of the government's intention to destroy its stockpiles as troops backed up by warplanes defended the chemical weapons facility at a vast missile base at Safira, southeast of Aleppo, to prevent it from falling to the Jabhat and the Islamic State.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times