BEIRUT -- As Syrian President Bashar Assad was negotiating recently with a United Nations envoy to end more than a year of violence in the country, his forces were committing war crimes in the northwest province of Idlib, a Human Rights Watch report charged Wednesday.
The group called on the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court to ensure accountability for the crimes it says it documented.
The two-week offensive, in which at least 95 civilians were killed and hundreds of homes were burned or destroyed, began in late March as envoy Kofi Annan was trying to get a commitment from Assad for a cease-fire and peace plan to end the violence.
The report, which documents dozens of extrajudicial executions, property destruction, arbitrary detention and torture, is based on field investigations in five opposition-held towns in Idlib.
"While diplomats argued over details of Annan’s peace plan, Syrian tanks and helicopters attacked one town in Idlib after another," said Anna Neistat, associate director for program and emergencies at the rights group. "Everywhere we went, we saw burnt and destroyed houses, shops and cars, and heard from people whose relatives were killed. It was as if the Syrian government forces used every minute before the cease-fire to cause harm."
Most of the executions took place during an attack in early April on Taftanaz, a town of about 15,000, the report said.
One witness recalled an execution. "The soldiers placed the four of us facing a wall. They first asked Awad where his armed sons were. When Awad said that he was an old man and that he didn’t have any armed sons, they just shot him three times from a Kalashnikov," 43-year-old resident Mohammed Aiman Ezz said, according to the report.
Ezz himself was shot three times in the back of the head and neck but survived, he told the group.
"They then said to Ahmed that apparently 25 years in prison had not been enough for him. When he didn’t say anything, they shot him. They then shot Iyad without any questions and he fell on my shoulder,” Ezz said. "I realized that it was my turn. I said there is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet and then I don’t remember anything else."
Another Taftanaz survivor described finding the bodies of five members of his family: "They were almost completely burnt. We could only identify them by a few pieces of clothes that were left."
In other cases, Human Rights Watch said, regime forces shot at fleeing civilians, killing or injuring them.
Dozens of people were arbitrarily arrested, and most of them remain in detention, the report charged. Those who were released, many of them elderly or disabled, described being tortured or treated badly, the report said.
The rights group called on the Security Council to ensure that the 300-member monitoring mission in the process of being deployed to Syria include a properly staffed and equipped group to interview victims of human rights abuses.
-- Times staff
Photo: United Nations observers outside U.N. offices in Damascus on Wednesday. Credit: Louai Beshara / AFP/Getty Images