Rights group accuses Syrian troops of war crimes

Syrian government forces carried out war crimes during a two-week offensive in the northern province of Idlib shortly before an April 12 cease-fire came into effect, an international human rights watchdog said Wednesday.

Human Rights Watch said troops killed at least 95 civilians and burned or destroyed hundreds of houses as U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan was negotiating with the Syrian government to end the fighting. In a 38-page report, the group documented summary executions, killings of civilians and arbitrary detentions and torture that it says qualify as war crimes.

"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 Human Rights Watch.

"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," she said.

The HRW report is based on a field investigation conducted in the towns of Taftanaz, Saraqeb, Sarmeen, Killi and Hazana in Idlib province. Some of the incidents cited appear to confirm widespread reports at the time of an offensive in Idlib in early April that triggered a massive wave of refugees who crossed the border to Turkey with horrific accounts of mass graves, massacres and burned out homes. Activists at one point reported about 100 dead in the villages of Taftanaz and Killi.

HRW said the majority of executions took place during the attack on Taftanaz. It cited nine separate incidents in which government forces executed 35 civilians in their custody. In other cases, government forces opened fire and killed or injured civilians trying to flee the attacks.

A cease-fire brokered by Annan was meant to end fighting by April 12. An advance team of U.N. observers is on the ground, in hopes of calming the situation. But while the level of violence has decreased since then, Syrian forces continue attacking rebellious areas instead of withdrawing to their barracks, as required under the truce deal. Rebel fighters also kept up shooting attacks and roadside ambushes targeting troops.

Syria's official news agency said Wednesday a member of the country's security forces was killed and three others wounded in a roadside bomb explosion in the central province of Hama. SANA said the bombing on a road between the towns of Tibet al-Imam and al-Latamneh was carried out by a "terrorist" group — a phrase authorities use for rebels fighting the regime.

It says engineering units had dismantled other explosive devices near al-Latamneh on Tuesday.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous deplored the ongoing violence Tuesday and promised to put 300 observers in Syria by the end of the month, up from the 24 in place now.