The conflict in Syria is becoming increasingly militarized despite an earlier agreement to halt hostilities, but the majority of serious human rights violations are being committed by government forces, according to a United Nations (UN) report.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said it remains 'extremely concerned' as gross violations continue unabated in an increasingly militarized context, with anti-government forces now armed, well-organized and bolstered by defectors who have previously joined them.
"Most of the serious human rights violations documented by the Commission in this Update were committed by the Syrian army and security services as part of military or search operations conducted in locations known for hosting defectors and/or armed persons, or perceived as supportive of anti-government armed groups," the panel said in its report released on Thursday.
Through 214 interviews conducted during two investigative missions in March and April, the UN panel was able to confirm at least 207 conflict-related deaths since March. The Syrian government also provided the UN with a list of casualties among members of the security forces, claiming more than 2,500 fatalities among police and security forces between late March 2011 and March 20 of this year.
The UN investigation found most of the human rights violations took place during large-scale, military attacks on specific locations known to host defectors, armed persons escorting anti-government demonstrations, and alleged supporters of the so-called "Free Syrian Army" (FSA). On occasion, the UN also found evidence of 'collective punishment' being carried out by government forces.
Many anti-government protests have been accompanied by armed groups who describe their role as providing protection for the demonstrators, regularly resulting in deadly clashes with government troops. "Despite the human rights imperative to employ lethal force only as a last resort to protect life, state security forces continued to use lethal force against anti-government demonstrations in Idlib, Homs, Aleppo, Hama, Damascus and Dar'a and in numerous villages throughout the country," the report said.
The UN's report also found evidence of unlawful killings during government military operations undertaken to weed out defectors, anti-government forces, their families, and other opponents perceived to be supporting anti-government armed groups. "A clear pattern emerged during the reporting period," the panel said.
According to the report, Syrian government forces would, based on a list of wanted persons and their families, blockade the primary roads leading to a village or neighborhood. A warning was then usually issued to hand over the wanted defectors or organizers of anti-government protests before a specified deadline.
Anti-government forces would attempt to evacuate women, children and elderly if they knew about the raid in advance, witnesses told the UN investigators. "If the fighters had not fled prior to the military advance, a clash ensued in the village," the report states. "Anyone seen trying to leave the area by avoiding the blockades were presumed to be members or supporters of anti-government armed groups and were shot."
In addition, Syrian government forces used both precise shelling to target small opposition strongholds and indiscriminate shelling to target residential areas suspected of harboring opposition fighters or supporters. After the shelling, government security forces would enter the area, position snipers on rooftops, and conduct house-to-house searches.
"Repeated accounts of extra-judicial killings in this context were also received," the report said. "Fighters in anti-government armed groups were killed after being captured or wounded. In some particularly grave instances, entire families were executed in their homes - usually the family members of those opposing the government such as family members of Colonel Raid Al Asaad."
There was also new evidence of arbitrary arrest and torture, including the torture of children. "One man told the Commission that he was arrested in Aleppo in April after being found in possession of a large sum of money," the report detailed. "His captors accused him of trafficking for the anti-government armed groups. They allegedly beat him and severely applied electric shocks to his legs. They released him a week later without charge and without his money."
During a raid on the village of Taftanaz in April, government forces allegedly killed several people, including at least five children. "Additionally, specific reports of children being killed by snipers arose in two separate villages in Idlib," the commission said in its report. Numerous children were also detained by government forces and tortured until they admitted that older family members were FSA soldiers or supporters.
"Wounded children have been unable to seek treatment due to fears of being perceived as anti-government armed groups' supporters or for fear of being beaten in health facilities," the report said. "Children have died due to a lack of adequate health care during Government blockades. Some, including those injured as a result of torture, have been willfully denied medical care."
According to evidence gathered by the commission, primary and secondary schools have also repeatedly been targeted by government forces. In one instance, a school in Atarib was occupied with tanks on its grounds and snipers were positioned on its roofs. Another school in a nearby village was burnt down, allegedly because its headmaster was rumored to be associated with anti-government forces.
But the commission also said it received multiple reports of serious human rights violations carried out by anti-government supporters. In some cases, government security forces and suspected informers or collaborators who were captured by anti-government forces were executed.
"A defector who fought in the ranks of Al Farouk Brigade in Homs city stated that members of the government forces, including what he claimed were three Iranian snipers, were summarily executed after they apparently confessed," the commission's report said. "One anti-government armed group fighter also admitted that he and his associates had killed Government soldiers when the captives refused to join them."
Among other alleged crimes carried out by anti-government forces, the commission found evidence of the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), torture and ill-treatment of prisoners, and the kidnapping and hostage taking of both government forces and civilians. The UN said the kidnappings were apparently carried out to enable prisoners exchanges, but some have been carried out to seek ransom to purchase weapons.
The UN estimates that more than 9,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed and tens of thousands displaced since the start of the uprising against the administration led by President Bashar al-Assad. The continuing violence prompted the UN Security Council to authorize the establishment of UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) with up to 300 unarmed military observers, for an initial period of time.