GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Syrian Islamist rebel groups on Friday were accused of killing at least 190 villagers in the country’s pro-government heartland and kidnapping hundreds more, as the emergence of jihadist forces fuels further sectarian strife.
Civilian residents, including dozens of women and children, were gunned down or stabbed during a coordinated, planned attack on villages in the mountains of Latakia province in August, New York-based Human Rights Watch said. More than 200 residents taken hostage still remain in custody of Islamist rebels, the group added.
The offensive, led by al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), targeted villages largely home to Alawites, members of the Shiite offshoot sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs. At one stage, rebels claimed that they were within 12 miles of Qardaha — the town from which Assad’s family hails — and Gen. Salim Idriss, the head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, was filmed visiting the front.
“Residents told us that in the early morning hours on August 4th, they woke up to gunfire and mortar fire,” said Lama Fakih, a Beirut-based researcher for Human Rights Watch who visited a number of the villages during the first week of September after reinforced government troops managed to regain control from rebels.
“Many described how they desperately tried to flee as fighters were shooting at them. They told us how they were injured, or how family members were killed, or how they saw their neighbors lying dead in the streets.”
The 105-page report was compiled from more than 35 interviews with residents, emergency response staff, and fighters and activists on both government and opposition sides.
It highlights one in a long string of mass killings during the more than 2 ½-year-old war. Investigations by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry lay blame on the government for the majority of the killings, but the Latakia offensive is the most serious by rebels, and it comes as jihadist groups have gained influence.
While rebels have been accused of war crimes in the past, there is strong evidence that the targeting of civilians in Latakia amounted to a crime against humanity, which must be proved to be systematic and planned, Fakih said.
A video of the Human Rights Watch’s visit showed destroyed and burned homes and overturned rooms. One man describes fleeing, leaving his wife and paralyzed son at home. He points out blood splatter still on the walls and bullet marks in the bedstead, where he says his son was shot where he lay.
The group called for an arms embargo against those rebel forces responsible for funding, arming and planning the operation, including ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar and Suquor al-Izz.