Human Rights Watch has accused groups within the Syrian opposition of committing atrocities against civilians. The allegations come as world leaders seek to arrange peace talks aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.
Syrian opposition fighters launched an offensive against civilians in the coastal province of Latakia in early August, during which some 190 people were killed, according to a report published by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch. The villagers who came under attack were Alawites, the same minority sect to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs.
The report based its finding on investigations carried out in Latakia in the weeks that followed the assault.
"The findings strongly suggest that the killings, hostage taking, and other abuses rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity," Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
Syrian rebel groups are believed to have struck army outposts on the morning of August 4. They then swept through at least 10 Alawite villages nearby, allegedly executing civilians and in some cases entire families.
The HRW report estimated that at least 67 of the 190 deaths were killed at close range. It also charged the opposition fighters with taking at least 200 people hostage.
"The scale and pattern of the serious abuses carried out by opposition groups during the operation indicate that they were systematic and planned as part of an attack on a civilian population," the report said.
Rebels had Gulf backing?
The report said fighters backed largely by Gulf countries - including Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and two al Qaeda-linked groups, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant - had participated in the attack.
While international leaders have worried about the presence of jihadist fighters within the Syrian opposition movement, they have voiced most of their concerns about the Assad regime's human rights record. During the Syrian civil war, the Syrian government has been accused of using cluster bombs and chemical weapons against civilians.
Al-Assad has regained some trust on the world stage in recent week by complying with UN-backed international disarmament inspectors, who have the task of destroying Assad's chemical weapons stockpile. Leaders hope Assad's willingness to work with the United Nations can pave the way toward bringing the government in Damascus to negotiations with opposition fighters.
kms/ph (AP, AFP, Reuters)