Syrians flee the town of Azaaz, near Aleppo, following an air strike by Bashar Assad's forces on Wednesday. UN investigators said the Syrian regime had committed crimes against humanity. (AFP)
DANIEL JOHNSON | AFP
GENEVA : Syrian government forces and their militia allies committed crimes against humanity, UN investigators said Wednesday. The rebels have also carried out war crimes although on a lesser scale, said the report submitted by the probers to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Just before the UN panel released its report to the public on Wednesday, an air strike by the Assad regime on a rebel bastion in the north flattened a string of houses and killed 23 people including children, leaving residents wailing in grief and anger, activists said.
The dead included women and children, while another 200 people were wounded, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In their latest report, investigators also blamed President Bashar Assad’s troops and shabiha allies for the massacre in central Syria’s Houla in May when 108 civilians, including 49 children, were killed.
A confidential list of individuals and units believed to have perpetrated the atrocities will be submitted to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, they added.
“The commission found reasonable grounds to believe that government forces and the shabiha had committed the crimes against humanity of murder and of torture, war crimes and gross violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law,” the report said.
These “violations were committed pursuant to state policy,” added investigators, who were not allowed into Syria to carry out their probe but who spoke to nearly 700 people, including former soldiers who fled the country.
“Large-scale operations in different governorates, their similar modus operandi, their complexity and integrated military-security apparatus indicate the involvement at the highest levels of the armed and security forces and the government,” they said.
Shabiha militia loyal to the Assad’s regime also “acted in concert with government forces” and were responsible for “many of the crimes” detailed in the 102-page report covering mid-February to July 2012.
A particular incident singled out was the Houla massacre, in which “the commission concluded that the government was responsible for the deaths of civilians as a result of shelling the Houla area and, particularly, Taldou village.”
Information garnered from 47 interviews showed that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that” the Houla atrocities “were part of a series of attacks directed against civilians, and as such, formed part of the conclusion that crimes against humanity were perpetrated by the government and shabiha.”
Rebel fighters were not spared in the overall probe, which found that they were also guilty of war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial execution and torture.
Nevertheless, “the violations and abuses committed by anti-government armed groups did not reach the gravity, frequency and scale of those committed by government forces and the shabiha,” investigators said in the report which is to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council on September 17.
Overall there has been a significant deterioration of human rights in Syria since the commission’s last update to the Human Rights Council in late June, the report said, with “continuous combat, involving more brutal tactics and new military capabilities on both sides.”
Investigators also made a call for their findings to be transmitted to the UN Security Council in order for action to be taken against perpetrators of the atrocities.
Air strike, bomb attacks
Publication of the UN report came as a bomb attack targeting military headquarters and a firefight near the prime minister’s office in Damascus.
The Free Syria Army claimed the bomb attack targeting a military headquarters near a hotel used by UN observers, saying it was a warning to Assad that it could strike anytime at the very heart of the regime.
A gunbattle also erupted between rebels and troops near the offices of new Prime Minister Wael Al-Halqi.
But the bomb attack paled in comparison to the impact of the Syria air force strike in Aazaz, carried out by a MiG fighter jet
“Bashar did this. God help us, these animals will kill us all,” said one man, hoisting a bloodied arm from a pile of body parts on the pavement outside the hospital in the town of Aazaz after the bombardment.
“There are many people still trapped under the rubble,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman. “The situation is horrific.”
Abdel Rahman said that among those wounded were four of a group of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims who were kidnapped near Aazaz in May.
Witnesses said the bomb must have weighed at least half a ton and the impact shattered windows up to four blocks away.
Residents insisted there was no rebel base where the bomb struck but some said the families of FSA fighters lived there.
An AFP correspondent said at least 10 houses had been flattened in the attack on Aazaz which lies just north of the main battleground city of Aleppo and is often used as rear base by rebel Free Syrian Army fighters.
“This was a civilian area. All these houses were packed with women and children sleeping during the fast,” said witness Abu Omar, a civil engineer in his 50s, referring to the dawn-to-dusk fast Muslims observe during Ramadan.
“Only dogs can do something like this. Israel wouldn’t do such a thing in a war,” he told AFP.
Witnesses and FSA forces who reinforced security around the town after the strike said the jet fired twice, targeting a makeshift media center used by foreign reporters in the second, smaller strike.
The attack came amid heavy shelling of several districts of Aleppo, regarded as a pivotal battleground in the conflict that is now entering its 18th month and has killed more than 23,000 people according to activists.
Dozens of people, many wailing and shouting, were climbing over the rubble, trying to pull out victims, while hundreds of others fled.
Entire families, carrying bags of clothes and boxes of food on their heads, were seen filing past the immigration office at the crossing point into the Turkish town of Kilis.
“That’s it, I’m leaving for Turkey with my family today. Life here is impossible,” said an Aazaz resident who gave his name as Jomaa.
At the local hospital, people brought in the body of a little girl apparently aged no more than four.
Footage from an amateur video distributed by the Observatory also showed the immobile, dust-covered hand of a little girl, likely dead, reaching out from under ruined buildings.
On the pavement outside the hospital, body parts had been heaped in a pile under a blanket.
A burly red-haired man with a bushy beard and hands covered in blood lifted the blanket after helping to bring in a wounded girl, grabbing a severed arm with skin and flesh dangling from it.
“I don’t know how many people these parts belong to, look here there’s half a woman and here half of somebody else,” he said as a crowd gathered around.
When he saw the mangled dust-caked body of a child less than a year old, he sat down on the pavement, clasped his head with both hands and started sobbing.
“Nobody knows how high the toll will climb now. It could take days to finish searching through the rubble,” said Abu Al-Baraa, a doctor who had just arrived in Syria from Saudi Arabia to help.
“Nobody can understand why they targeted women and children. They must have wanted to punish the families of fighters,” he said.
“I’m a radiologist, not a surgeon, but I’ll do anything I can to help,” said Abu Al-Baraa. There is only one other doctor at Aazaz hospital, an anaesthetist.
In Aleppo itself, an AFP correspondent said a new front had opened in the northeastern district of Baaideen, forcing residents to flee as regime forces pounded the area using tanks and warplanes.
Abu Ubayda, a local rebel commander, said regime forces were trying to encircle the FSA between Baaideen and southwestern district of Salaheddin which the government retook last week.