UN: Assad committing crimes against humanity

US-based Syrian dissident tells the 'Post' Syrian regime knew house where 2 journalists were killed was a "media center."

February 24, 2012 01:48
A Syrian tank outside Homs.

Syria tank Homs 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS)

UN investigators accused Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government of crimes against humanity, as tanks pushed into a rebel stronghold of the battered city of Homs.

The plight of Homs and other embattled towns will dominate the “Friends of Syria” talks in Tunis on Friday involving the United States, European nations, Arab countries, Turkey and other states demanding that Assad halt the bloodshed and relinquish power.

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Russia and China, which have jointly vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, said that they will stay away.

The meeting will call on Syria to implement an immediate ceasefire to give aid groups access to areas hit worst by the violence. The draft also “recognized the Syrian National Council (SNC) as a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change,” a phrase that appeared to fall short of full endorsement of the most prominent group opposed to Assad.

The exiled SNC is allied with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is made up of army deserters and insurgents who are resisting security forces that have sought to crush protests against Assad’s 11-year rule, bolstered by his minority Alawite sect.

US officials said the Friends of Syria group would challenge Assad to provide humanitarian access within days to civilians embroiled in the intensifying conflict.

A US-based Syrian opposition figure said the summit could prove a useful forum for bypassing the UN Security Council.

“It’s important in that it can provide an alternative forum for the movement against Assad to gain momentum outside the UN and the Russian and Chinese veto,” he told The Jerusalem Post.

On the ground in Syria, reports of atrocities continue to accumulate. Activists said Syrian security forces lined up and shot dead 13 men and boys from one extended family that has the same last name as the FSA’s commander Riad al-Asaad in the Hama province on Thursday.

It was not immediately clear if the victims were related to Asaad, who is based in Turkey and comes from the northwestern province of Idlib.

World outrage has swelled over the carnage in Syria, where thousands have been killed since the anti-Assad uprising flared in March.

UN investigators said Syrian forces had shot and killed unarmed women and children, shelled residential areas and tortured wounded protesters in hospitals under orders issued at the “highest levels” of the army and government.

In their report to the UN Human Rights Council, they called for perpetrators of such crimes against humanity to face prosecution and said they had drawn up a confidential list of names of commanders and officials alleged to be responsible.

The commission found that Free Syrian Army rebels had also committed abuses “although not comparable in scale.” Syrian authorities have not commented, but they rejected the commission’s previous report in November as “totally false.” Rockets, shells and mortar rounds rained for the 20th day in a row on the Baba Amro district, where armed insurgents are holed up with terrified civilians, activists said. The Sunni Muslim quarters of Inshaat and Khalidiya also came under fire.

A Homs-based activist said tanks had entered the area area in the south of Baba Amro. “Explosions are shaking the whole of Homs. God have mercy,” the activist said from the city, where more than 80 people, including two Western journalists and Syrian opposition citizen journalist Rami al- Sayed, were reported killed on Wednesday.

Western diplomats said it had not yet been possible to extract the bodies of Marie Colvin, an American working for Britain’s Sunday Times, and French photographer Remi Ochlik.

Two journalists wounded in the same attack – British photographer Paul Conroy and French reporter Edith Bouvier – were also awaiting evacuation from Baba Amro, along with French photographer William Daniels, who was present at the attack but unhurt by it.

Bouvier, in a YouTube clip posted by activists, said she urgently needed an operation on a broken leg and appealed for a ceasefire and medical transport to neighboring Lebanon. Activists said she was being treated at a poorly-equipped field hospital in Baba Amro, and is at risk of bleeding to death if medical aid cannot reach her.

The Syrian Information Ministry rejected accusations that Syria was responsible for the deaths and injuries of journalists, who “infiltrated into the country on their own responsibility.” Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that before the media center was shelled, Syrian army officers were allegedly intercepted by intelligence staff in neighboring Lebanon discussing how they would claim journalists had been killed in a crossfire with “terrorist groups.” Jean-Pierre Perrin, a journalist for the Paris-based daily Liberation, said the Telegraph had been told Syrian forces were deliberately going to shell their media center.

“A few days ago, we were advised to leave the city urgently and we were told, ‘If they find you, they will kill you.’”

“The Syrian army issued orders to ‘kill any journalist that set foot on Syrian soil,’” he said.

“The regime quite likely knew it was a media center,” the US-based dissident told the Post. “I’m not sure they intentionally meant to kill those journalists, but they did want to shut down that center.”

Activists say the army is cutting off electricity to Homs for 15 hours a day. Hospitals, schools, shops and government offices are closed.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been trying to get the government and rebel forces to agree to daily two-hour ceasefires. Access for aid workers will also be the focus of a planned visit to Syria by UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.

To further isolate Assad’s government, the European Union will impose sanctions on seven Syrian cabinet ministers next week. It will also slap new curbs on the Syrian central bank, prohibit trade in precious metals with state institutions and ban cargo flights from Syria, a senior EU diplomat said.

The bloody siege of parts of Homs has aroused widespread international indignation, but the world has so far proved powerless to alleviate the predicament of civilians there.

Footage shot by activists in Homs showed blasted buildings, empty streets and doctors treating casualties in makeshift clinics in Baba Amro after nearly three weeks of bombardment.

Several hundred people have been killed in Homs by troops using artillery, tanks, rockets and sniper fire.

Residents fear Assad will subject the city to the same fate his late father Hafez inflicted on Hama, where many thousands were killed in the crushing of an armed Islamist revolt in 1982.

The state news agency SANA said three members of the security forces were killed and seven wounded by a bomb planted by “armed terrorists” near the city of Idlib. It also reported the funerals of 16 security force members killed by rebels.

Assad has called a referendum on a new constitution on Sunday, to be followed by a multi-party parliamentary election, which he says is a response to calls for reform. The plan is supported by his allies Russia and China, but Western powers have dismissed it and the Syrian opposition has called for a boycott.

The United States, which so far has been against military intervention in Syria, has hinted that if a political solution were impossible, it might have to consider other options.

In a debate on Wednesday, Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich advocated arming Syrian rebels.

“If we can turn Syria and Lebanon away from Iran, we finally have the capacity to get Iran to pull back” from its nuclear program, Romney said.

“This is an administration which, as long as you’re America’s enemy, you’re safe,” Gingrich said of the Obama White House. “The only people you’ve got to worry about is if you’re an American ally.”

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