Human rights group says Syrian rebel groups committed war crimes in Latakia

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An opposition fighter from the Al-Ikhlas brigade guards a post in Syria's northeastern city of Deir Ezzor on October 9, 2013. (Photo: AFP - Ahmad Aboud)

Published Friday, October 11, 2013

A rights group accused jihadis in Syria of war crimes, saying Friday they killed 190 civilians from President Bashar al-Assad's Alawi minority, in the largest atrocity attributed to rebels in the conflict.

The accusations by Human Rights Watch said another 200 people – the vast majority women and children – were taken hostage in the operations that took place in August and are still being held.

The report, which urged an arms embargo on any group suspected of war crimes or crimes against humanity, said at least 67 of the victims were "executed or unlawfully killed".

It comes as NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he sees no military solution to the 31-month conflict, which has killed more than 115,000 people.

HRW said the killings began on August 4, the first day of the Eid Al-Fitr holiday ending the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, in a sweep of villages in Latakia province, an Alawi stronghold.

"These abuses were not the actions of rogue fighters," said HRW's Joe Stork. "This operation was a coordinated, planned attack on the civilian population."

The 105-page report, based on interviews with 35 survivors, emergency personnel and fighters on both sides, said at least 20 groups were involved, but that five "are responsible for specific incidents that amount to war crimes".

It named them as Ahrar al-Sham, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Nusra Front, Jaish al-Muhajireen Wal-Ansar and Suqur al-Ezz.

HRW said that, in some cases, opposition fighters executed or gunned down entire families, or killed the elderly or infirm who had been left behind by those who fled.

It cited some witnesses as seeing corpses that had been bound and others that had been decapitated.

HRW also said "some of the opposition atrocities... had clear sectarian motivation."

In one village, it said fighters reached an Alawi maqam, a site where a religious figure is buried, and "appear to have intentionally damaged and dug up the grave."

It said they had also abducted and executed Sheikh Bader Ghazzal, the area's Alawi religious leader, quoting al-Nusra as saying he had been executed because he supported the government.

Meanwhile, HRW quoted opposition forces, including an officer involved in negotiations, as saying ISIL and Jaish al-Muhajireen Wal-Ansar are holding 200 hostages, mostly women and children.

It called for them to be treated humanely and released immediately, urging countries with influence over the groups to press for their liberation.

The New York-based group said it "has previously documented war crimes and crimes against humanity by Syrian government and pro-government forces" including by "systematic torture and summary and extrajudicial executions after ground operations".

However, it said "abuses by opposition forces under no circumstances justify violations by the Syrian government".

It quoted several sources as saying funding for the Latakia operation had come "from individuals in Kuwait and other Gulf countries".

HRW also singled out neighboring Turkey, saying it should "prevent the entry of fighters and arms for groups credibly implicated in systematic human rights violations."

In Athens, meanwhile, NATO's Rasmussen "there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria," emphasizing a political solution was required to end it.

He voiced support for a long-mooted international conference hosted by the United States and Russia that would seek to negotiate a deal between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and opposition groups.

"I urge the government and opposition in Syria to participate in this conference that hopefully will pave the way for a sustainable solution," he said.

On the ground, a second team of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived in Damascus Thursday to help supervise the destruction of Syria's chemical arsenal under the terms of a UN resolution.

At the same time, the UN Security Council backed a plan by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for a joint mission of up to 100 experts with the OPCW to destroy the weapons, diplomats said.

The council agreed that the UN and the OPCW are doing "a great job," said France's UN Ambassador Gerard Araud, while Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin noted "good cooperation by the Syrian government."

The OPCW was on Friday named this year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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