Syrian rebels killed civilians and took hostages in Latakia offensive: HRW (VIDEO)


A Syrian man mourns the deaths of six of his siblings who were killed in a bomb attack during fighting between rebel fighters and Syrian government forces in the northern city of Raqqa, on August 10, 2013.



"They were shooting at us from two different directions. They had machine guns and were using snipers. My older brother came down and hid with us as well. We hid, but my dad stayed in the house. He was killed in his bed. My aunt, she is an 80-year-old blind woman, was also killed in her room."

This is an account from a resident who lived between the Syrian villages of Blouta and al-Hamboushieh, describing an attack by Syrian rebels on August 4, 2013.

New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report Friday alleging that Syrian rebels committed war crimes, including unlawful killing and hostage taking, during a large-scale offensive on Alawite villages in Syria's Latakia region.

"Eight survivors and witnesses described how opposition forces executed residents and opened fire on civilians, sometimes killing or attempting to kill entire families who were either in their homes unarmed or fleeing from the attack, and at other times killing adult male family members, and holding the female relatives and children hostage," the report said.

The report says groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad killed 190 civilians in that offensive, including 57 women, and at least 18 children and 14 elderly men. At least 67 of those killed were executed or unlawfully killed.

The fighters also took over 200 civilians hostage, including women and children, who were still in captivity when the report was published.

HRW identified five rebel groups involved in organizing and executing the offensive: Ahrar al-Sham, Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Suquor al-Iz.

"These abuses were not the actions of rogue fighters," said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at HRW. "This operation was a coordinated, planned attack on the civilian population in these Alawite villages."

The report further complicates Western nations' efforts to arm some rebels, while ensuring weapons don't fall into the hands of extremists. Some 20 rebel groups took part in the offensive, including some affiliated with the Free Syrian Army led by Gen. Salim Idris.

The New York Times pointed out that a video filmed nearby shows Idris "insisting that his forces played a leading role, in statements responding to criticism from Islamist groups that his fighters were hanging back." The report said it was unclear whether FSA forces were part of the Aug. 4 attack.

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GlobalPost senior correspondent Tracey Shelton, who has covered Syria for the last two years on several trips to the war-torn country, sent her thoughts from Libya:

"The situation in Syria has changed completely from when I began covering the conflict there almost 2 years ago. At that time, foreign fighters were rare. Although there was a religious element to the uprising, the majority spoke of freedom and democracy, and a fight for human rights and dignity.

"FSA fighters frequently stated that while their beliefs about what kind of government they were fighting for might vary, their utmost duty was protecting civilians.

"Over time, the Syrian revolution has transformed from an uprising against a harsh regime to a fractured conflict with various religious, ethnic and political groups at odds with each other.

"I have seen the level of hatred and aggression towards both foreigners and Alawites increase dramatically over time.

"While the Syrian government has committed numerous atrocities against its own people, the rebel forces have also committed undeniable crimes on a scale that is increasing and worsening as the conflict drags on."

HRW called on the United Nations Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, charges that have also been leveled against Assad's forces.

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The report comes as war rages between the Syrian government and an increasingly fractious opposition.

International chemical weapons inspectors have visited at least three sites associated with Assad's chemical weapons program under a deal to remove or destroy Syria's stockpiles by mid-2014. On Wednesday, the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons called for a temporary ceasefire so inspectors could access sites in rebel-held territory.

Focus on Syria's chemical weapons sharpened following a deadly attack on Aug. 21 outside Damascus, which killed 1,429 (according to US intelligence estimates). Inspectors sent by the UN confirmed use of chemical weapons, although they did not assign blame.

On Thursday, air raids in Aleppo and Daraa killed 30 people, illustrating the deadliness of conventional weapons in Syria's civil war. More than 100,000 people have been killed since the war began in 2011, according to UN estimates.

Watch HRW's report, which includes footage filmed by the organization in the villages, as well as footage from the opposition of the attack: