Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces and pro-government shabiha fighters have perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity on Syrian civilians, a United Nations expert panel concluded Wednesday in a report that provides in chilling detail further evidence of a conflict spiraling out of control.
It also contained an ominous warning that Syria's 17-month-old civil war was moving in "brutal" directions on all fronts as Assad's forces step up air assaults and anti-government armed groups seek stronger firepower to fight back.
The panel appointed by the 47-nation Human Rights Council blamed the government and pro-government shabiha militia for the killing of more than 100 civilians in Houla in May and said the murders, unlawful killing, torture, sexual violence and indiscriminate attacks "indicate the involvement at the highest levels of the armed and security forces and the government."
According to the final report to the Geneva-based council, the squads poured into the village of Houla on foot and in vehicles: cars, minivans, pickups mounted with machine guns. At the end, dozens were dead — nearly half of them children In one village site where some 60 people were killed, the commission found through satellite imagery and corroborated accounts that "the movement of vehicles or weapons, as well as the size of the group, would have been easily detectable by government forces" but the place was inaccessible for any "sizeable" anti-government armed group.
Karen Koning AbuZayd, one of the panel members, urged the international community to "stop the violence in the first place and then eventually hold people accountable for it."
Aid to Syria questioned
John Baird, Canada's foreign affairs minister, is dismissing reports that some of the emergency assistance from one Canadian group being used to support opposition forces battling the Syrian regime.
Questions have been raised about $2 million in aid flowing through a recently established Syrian-Canadian group, as opposed to more traditional avenues.
But the federal government says Canadian Relief for Syria is receiving the money because it's able to provide direct services — almost all of it medical aid —to those affected by the ongoing conflict in the country.
Baird says getting assistance to a war zone is difficult.
AbuZayd, who once headed UNRWA — the UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees, said Syria had previously won her respect because of the excellent care it provided to Palestinian refugees during her past decade of work there.
"For me, everything is pretty shocking. For these things to be happening in Syria ... It's pretty painful, I must say, to see what is happening to the country and how all sides are behaving, really," she told The Associated Press.
The panel concluded that anti-government armed groups committed war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture, but at a lesser frequency and scale.
A confidential list of people and armed units believed to be responsible for crimes against humanity, breaches of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations is to be submitted to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in September.
In its use of the term "war crimes" to describe its findings, the panel relies on an assessment of Syria by the International Committee of the Red Cross in mid-July. The Geneva-based ICRC, which oversees the Geneva Conventions known as the rules of war, said it now considers the conflict in Syria to be a full-blown civil war, meaning international humanitarian law applies throughout the country.
That assessment was an important reference for the panel and for all others trying to determine how much and what type of force can be used. It forms the basis for war crimes prosecutions, especially if civilians are attacked or detained enemies are abused or killed. Until then, everything had to be considered "a violation or an abuse," said Karen Koning AbuZayd, one of the panel members.
"The international community must come to some kind of consensus to stop the violence in the first place and then eventually hold people accountable for it," AbuZayd, a U.S. citizen and former head of UNRWA, the UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees, told The Associated Press.
Syria had previously won her respect, she said, because of the excellent care it provided to Palestinian refugees during her past decade of work there.
"For me, everything is pretty shocking. For these things to be happening in Syria ... It's pretty painful, I must say, to see what is happening to the country and how all sides are behaving, really," she added.
The panel's 102-page report was issued just hours after a bomb exploded in the Syrian capital of Damascus outside a hotel where UN observers are staying. The bomb was attached to a fuel truck and wounded at least three people, Syrian state TV reported. Activists also reported fighting near the government headquarters and the Iranian embassy, both in Damascus, along with clashes in different parts of Syria.
The panel was appointed to probe abuses in Syria but had hardly any access to the country, with only its chairman, Brazilian diplomat and professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, allowed into Damascus for a weekend visit last month to meet with some top government officials and families affected by the violence. A third panel member had dropped out.
Most of the report, which covers the period between Feb. 15 and July 20, was conducted during field interviews and in Geneva with Syrian refugees outside the country. It is based on 1,062 interviews, but the panel emphasized that the investigation was hampered by the Assad regime's unwillingness to cooperate.
Their report, whose findings are strikingly more conclusive about the Houla massacre than previous interim findings, could be used by world powers to justify tougher outside action against Syria, or strengthen calls for an international investigation and prosecution of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The panel recommends that the president of the Human Rights Council forward the report to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who could bring it to the attention of the most powerful arm of the UN, the Security Council based in New York. Earlier this year, the council said in a resolution that it agreed with Pillay, the UN's top human rights official, in her call for action by the International Criminal Court based at The Hague.
But Russia and China, two of the five veto-wielding permanent members on that 15-nation council, have effectively blocked major powers from responding in a coordinated fashion to the Syria crisis, a stalemate cited by the UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, in deciding to resign from his post at the end of this month.
The Human Rights Council also could extend the mandate of its special panel on Syria so that it can investigate further. But even if it doesn't, Pinheiro would continue to work in essentially the same role for the council as its special rapporteur for Syria, a position that was created in March.
Activists say more than 20,000 people have been killed since the start of Syria's revolt, inspired by other Arab Spring uprisings against autocratic regimes in the region. The conflict has slowly changed into a full blown civil war that the panel says involves "more brutal tactics and new military capabilities on both sides."
Syrian fighter jets bomb rebel town
Syrian fighter jets screamed through the sky Wednesday over this rebel-held town, dropping bombs that leveled the better part of a poor neighborhood and wounded scores of people, many of them women and children buried under piles of rubble. Activists said more than 20 people were killed.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 23 people died in the double airstrike and more than 200 were wounded. Mohammed Nour, a local activist reached by phone, put the death toll at 25. Neither figure could be independently confirmed.
Reporters from The Associated Press saw nine dead bodies in the bombings' immediate aftermath, including a baby.
The bombings sent panicked civilians fleeing for cover. So many were wounded that the local hospital locked its doors, directing residents to drive to the nearby Turkish border so the injured could be treated on the other side. One person's remains were bundled into a small satchel.
A group of young men found a man buried in the wreckage of destroyed homes, his clothes torn and his limbs dirty, but still alive.
"God is great! God is great!" they chanted as they yanked him out and laid him on a blanket.
Nearby, a woman sat on a pile of bricks that once was her home, cradling a dead baby wrapped in a dirty cloth. Two other bodies lay next to her, covered in blankets. She screamed and threw stones at a TV crew that tried to film her.
The bombing of Azaz, some 50 kilometres north of Aleppo, shattered the sense of control rebels have sought to project since they took the area from President Bashar Assad's army last month. Azaz is also the town where rebels have been holding 11 Lebanese Shiites they captured in May.
Also on Wednesday, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, comprised of 57 member states, released a final statement from its two day summit in Saudi Arabia's Muslim holy city of Mecca urging support of the opposition. The statement did not mention suspending Syria's membership, but OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu told reporters after the summit that the organization had agreed to do so. The move is largely symbolic.
Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, whose nation is Assad's most staunch regional supporter, told reporters before the opening session in Saudi Arabia that suspending Syria will not resolve the issue of the unrest there.
A wide-ranging tableau of violence and retributions on Wednesday reinforced the UN's warnings.
Regime relying on air strikes
A blast in central Damascus rattled — but did not injure — UN observers, followed by the airstrikes in Azaz. And in tense Lebanon, a powerful Shia clan that backs Assad said it abducted at least 20 Syrians in retaliation for rebels holding one of their relatives captive in Syria. The rebels accuse the Lebanese man of belonging to Hezbollah, a Shia Lebanese group allied with Syria and Iran.
The bombing of Azaz brought into stark relief the limits of the rebels' expanding control of Syria's north.
In recent months, rebels have pushed the Syrian army from a number of towns in a swath of territory south of the Turkish border and north of Aleppo, Syria's largest city. About a dozen destroyed tanks and army vehicles are scattered around Azaz, left over from those battles.
As the Assad regime's grip on the ground slips, however, it is increasingly targeting rebel areas with attack helicopters and fighter jets — weapons the rebels can't challenge.
Rebels and residents of the Aleppo countryside say the army rarely hits rebel targets, striking instead at residential areas and killing civilians.
The Azaz bombings appeared to fit that pattern.
The first blast seemed to come out of nowhere, shaking the city's downtown and sending up a huge gray cloud of smoke that sent terrified residents rushing through the streets looking for cover.
Not long after, another jet appeared, dropping bombs nearby.
"We were in the house and heard this plane overhead," said a 36-year-old woman who gave her name as Um Hisham. "There was this huge boom that made my mother pass out in the kitchen."
Hundreds of residents flocked to the bombing sites to inspect the damage and look for dead and wounded in the rubble.
The first blast damaged houses and shattered shop windows along nearby streets. It sheared off the front wall of one home, exposing a man and his wife inside their kitchen, where jars of olives and pickles still sat in the cupboards.
"I saw the plane come down and some missiles fall and then there was smoke all over," said Mohammed Fuad, 18. "When it cleared, we heard screaming and saw rubble all over the streets."
More than a dozen homes were reduced to a huge expanse of broken concrete. Men wandered the area, lifting up bricks and peering through holes in collapsed roofs to see if anyone was stuck underneath.
One group brought a generator and an electric saw to cut through rebar, while others cleared rubble from the road so pickup trucks ferrying the dead and injured could pass.
Many of those gathered screamed at foreign journalists, decrying the international community for not intervening militarily in Syria's civil war. The revolt that started in March 2011 with protests calling for political change has killed more than 20,000 people, activists say.
Many of the wounded were driven directly to the Turkish border, six kilometres to the north.
Nour, the local activist, said there were 15 dead in a hospital in Turkey and 10 who had been buried in the town. He said many more had yet to be counted.
The area appeared to be no more than a poor, residential neighborhood with a few metal workshops, and residents said there were no rebel bases there, though they often do not speak openly about where rebels operate.
Azaz has considered itself "liberated" since rebel forces pushed out the army last month. Its largest rebel group, the Northern Storm Brigade, runs a prison and the nearby border crossing with Turkey. It's political and media offices are less than a kilometre away from the bombing site, in the former local headquarters of Assad's Baath party.
In nearby Aleppo, activists reported shelling and clashes in the city, where rebels have taken control of several neighborhoods over the past weeks. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels were trying to take over a key dam in the northern town of Manbij, east of Aleppo. It said the army was using helicopter gunships in the battles along the Euphrates River.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said Syrian government fighter planes fired rockets that struck the main hospital in an opposition-controlled area of Aleppo a day earlier, wounding two civilians and causing significant damage. The group said its members visited the damaged hospital.