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'Syrian rebels committed war crimes'

A report by the organization Human Rights Watch documents a civilian massacre carried out, the groups says, by rebels in northern Syria. The report's author, Lama Fakih, shares her impressions with DW.

Human Rights Watch has said the offensive against 14 pro-regime villages in the province of Latakia was planned and led by five Islamic extremist groups, including two linked to al-Qaeda. Other rebel groups, including those belonging to the Free Syrian Army, a Western-backed alliance, participated in the campaign, but there is no evidence linking them to war crimes, the 105-page report said.

DW: What exactly do you believe happened in the area around Latakia, Syria on August 4, 2013?

Lama Fakih: In Human Rights Watch's new report, "You Can Still See Their Blood," we have documented that on the first day of an opposition offensive in the Latakia countryside, we believe at least 190 civilians were killed by opposition fighters. More than 200 additional civilians were also taken as hostages.

You've been there - you've been talking to the survivors. How is their state of health and state of mind?

The report is based on an on-site investigation. I was able to visit the villages in the first week of September and speak with some of the residents still living in the villages. The residents, by and large, were still very much trying to pick up the pieces from their lives. Everyone I spoke to had lost family members in the attacks. And everyone I spoke to had their homes affected by the violence. It seems quite clear, in a number of cases, that homes were intentionally damaged by fighters when they came into the area.

People were quite clearly still suffering from shock as a result of the incident, but medically they had received assistance from the national hospital there.

What evidence is there that the rebels carried out the massacre?

The evidence we have supports that opposition forces carried out these crimes. It includes statements from individuals who survived the attack as well as statements from opposition groups that participated. So we know from the opposition groups that they were in the villages on these days, and, in some cases, the groups have actually filmed themselves committing war crimes and published those videos.

Lama Fakih

Human Rights Watch expert Lama Fakih

What was their motive for carrying out the massacre?

The attack on the villages appeared to have both a symbolic and militarily strategic purpose. We have to speculate a bit about the motivation for the fighters. Based on statements they have made, it does seem that they viewed this attack on this series of Alawite villages as one way of striking into the heartland of Assad's support. Assad's hometown, the town of Qardaha, is not far from these villages that were hit. In many videos posted online on social networks, a number of opposition fighters made statements indicating that they were going to take the fight all the way to Qardaha, and all the way to Latakia city, which continues to be an area of strong support for the government.

Militarily, it was about attacking a military basis in a village, Barouda. From Barouda, government forces continually struck at opposition fighters.

What is Human Rights Watch demanding happen as a result of the massacre?

We continue to urge unified international action through the UN Security Council. We're calling for an arms embargo against the five opposition groups that were clearly responsible for the abuses that took place in the Latakia countryside.

We're also calling on the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Doing so would allow the court to investigate abuses not only by opposition forces, but also by government and pro-government forces.

Also, more efforts need to be undertaken to isolate the groups within the opposition that are committing war crimes on such an extensive scale - and crimes against humanity. To do that, we're calling on other groups operating on the ground to cease support and coordination with them.

We are also calling on Gulf countries to restrict money transfers, as we've found that more and more money from these countries is being sent to these groups. Finally, we're also asking the Turkish government to enhance its border control policies, so that the foreign fighters who perpetrated these abuses, and any others like them, no longer have access to the country.

Lama Fakih works for the human rights organization Human Rights Watch. Based in Beirut, she has overseen the group's work in Lebanon and in Syria. She authored the report "You Can Still See Their Blood," in which Human Rights Watch documented the massacre of August 4, 2013 in northern Syria. The report was published October 11, 2013.

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