REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Human Rights Watch on Friday accused the Syrian government of crimes against humanity during its crackdown on opponents in the central region of Homs, a focal point of the rebellion against the government of President Bashar Assad.
In a 63-page report, the New York-based rights group accused Syrian security forces of unprovoked attacks against civilians in the country's third-largest city. (Footage below)
During the more than four–month period covered by the report, from mid-April until the end of August, Human Rights Watch said, Syrian forces killed at least 587 civilians in the Homs region, the highest number of casualties in any province.
The report’s release Friday comes a day before the Arab League is scheduled to meet in Cairo about the crisis in Syria, which has been wracked by unrest for almost eight months. Human Rights Watch urged the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership and impose an arms embargo and sanctions against "individuals responsible for the violations."
The group also called on the Arab League to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court for possible prosecution of human rights violators.
“Homs is a microcosm of the Syrian government’s brutality,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch. “The Arab League needs to tell President Assad that violating their agreement has consequences, and that it now supports Security Council action to end the carnage.”
The opposition reported Friday that government forces killed at least 37 people, half in the central city of Homs, which has become an epicenter of the almost eight-month rebellion against Assad’s rule. The casualty numbers could not be independently verified.
Arab ministers have voiced concern that Syria may be violating terms of a League-brokered peace pact that calls for the government to withdraw forces from populated areas and initiate dialogue with the opposition.
Syrian opposition groups say the government has used the pact to launch a renewed offensive on Homs, shelling neighborhoods and leaving scores more dead.
Syria has thus far refused entry to United Nations human rights investigators.
Protesters across the nation Friday hoisted banners calling for a “freeze” on Syria’s membership in the Arab League. The now-traditional Friday marches, following Muslim prayers, was on this occasion meant to exert pressure on Arab nations to take action against Syria.
Amnesty International also has called on the Arab League to press Syria to allow human rights monitors into the country.
There was no immediate response Friday from the Syrian government. Syria has blamed the violence on armed "terrorists."
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: A handout purporting to show a Syrian armored vehicle in Hula, near Homs, on Sept. 30.
Video: Human Rights Watch researcher Nadim Houry discusses abuses in Homs, Syria. Credit: Human Rights Watch / YouTube