Rebel fighters in Syria killed at least 190 civilians and abducted more than 200 during an offensive against pro-regime villages, committing a war crime, an international human rights group said yesterday.
The Aug. 4 attacks on unarmed civilians in more than a dozen villages in the coastal province of Latakia were systematic and could even amount to a crime against humanity, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a 105-page report based on a visit to the area a month later.
Witnesses said rebels went house to house, in some cases killing entire families and in other cases killing the men and taking women and children hostage. The villagers belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam which forms the backbone of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
One survivor, Hassan Shebli, said he fled as rebels approached his village of Barouda at dawn, but was forced to leave behind his wife, who was unable to walk without crutches, and his 23-year-old son, who is completely paralyzed.
When Shebli returned days later, after government forces retook the village, he found his wife and son buried near the house and bullet holes and blood splatters in the bedroom, the US-based group said.
The findings are bound to feed mounting Western unease about the tactics of some of those trying to topple al-Assad and about the growing role of jihadist rebels, including foreign fighters linked to al-Qaeda.
UN war crimes investigators have accused both sides in Syria’s civil war, now in its third year, of wrongdoing, though they said earlier this year that the scale and intensity of rebel abuses has not reached that of the regime.
The new allegations of rebel abuses come at a time when the regime is regaining some international legitimacy because of its apparent cooperation with an internationally mandated program to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile by the middle of next year.
Lama Fakih of Human Rights Watch said the rebel abuses in Latakia “certainly amount to war crimes,” and may even rise to the level of crimes against humanity.
The group said more than 20 rebel groups participated in the Latakia offensive.
Five groups, including two linked to al-Qaeda and others with jihadist leanings, led the campaign, which appeared to have been funded in part by private donations raised in the Persian Gulf, the report said.