Syrian government forces and allied militias have waged a brutal campaign of murder, torture, rape and indiscriminate shelling of Syrian civilians amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, a United Nations expert panel reported Wednesday.
Among the bleak findings: Syrian government forces and their allies were to blame for the Houla massacre of more than 100 civilians, including scores of women and children. A Syrian government investigation of the May killings that blamed “terrorists,” the usual government term for the armed rebels, was shoddy and rested on two inconsistent accounts, the report said.
The government ordered such abuses or knew they were being carried out, the expert panel tapped by the U.N. Human Rights Council determined. Rebels also committed war crimes including murder, torture and unlawful killings, the panel concluded, though not on the same scale or with the same frequency as government forces.
“We do not take prisoners; no one comes out alive,” one Free Syrian Army rebel fighter told the expert commission. “If he manages to escape, he will come back to kill me.”
The report adds to the mounting condemnations of the Syrian government and, increasingly, armed opposition forces, in the uprising that has raged nearly a year and a half. It warned that the bloody conflict has only worsened since February, with both sides turning to more brutal tactics. Gruesome abuses from both sides have been recorded and spread online.
Instead, they interviewed more than 1,000 people -- nearly 700 of them since February -- through Skype, phone calls and meetings with those who had fled the country for firsthand accounts of the crisis. Experts also pored over photographs, videos, satellite images and medical and forensic records.
Though the government says it is rooting out terrorists in its blanket shelling of rebel strongholds such as Baba Amr, its attacks have been directed at neighborhoods and towns filled with civilians, giving the U.N. “reasonable grounds to believe the war crime of attacking civilians has been perpetrated in many instances,” the report said. House-to-house executions can reasonably be called murder, it found.
The abuses have not spared children, scores of whom have been killed and others reported to have been tortured, raped or used as human shields, the experts said. Rebels reportedly used children as fighters.
Activists say more than 17,000 people have died in the ongoing violence; the Syrian government reported roughly 8,000 government forces and civilians dead as of early July. The U.N. has used the 17,000 figure in its news reports, though it has not issued a recent official tally of the dead.
Though the U.N. and human rights groups have repeatedly denounced atrocities in Syria, world powers have been deadlocked over whether to take action. Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed attempts by the U.N. Security Council to act against the Syrian leadership. Kofi Annan, who helped broker a peace plan that ended up in tatters, stepped down as U.N. special envoy earlier this month, dismayed by the unrelenting violence and political paralysis.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: A Syrian woman reacts after an air strike Wednesday in the town of Azaaz, near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Credit: Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images