HRW: Syrian commanders had 'shoot to kill' orders

December 15, 2011 - 2:06 AM
Syria

In this image taken from amateur video made available by Sham News Network in Syria on Tuesday Dec. 13, 2011, shows pro-government militia on the street in Daraa Syria Tuesday.(AP Photo/Sham News Network, via APTN) TV OUT

BEIRUT (AP) — A human rights group says dozens of Syrian military commanders and officials authorized or gave direct orders for widespread killings and torture during the country's wave of anti-government protests that began nine months ago.

Human Rights Watch released its 88-page report on Thursday. The report is based on more than 60 interviews with defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies.

It identifies 74 commanders and officials behind the alleged abuse.

Earlier this month, Syrian President Bashar Assad told ABC's Barbara Walters that he never ordered the brutal suppression of the uprising in his country.

Anna Neistat, associate director for emergencies at HRW, says in the report that Assad "must have known about the abuses."

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BEIRUT (AP) — Violence across Syria killed at least 25 people Wednesday, including eight soldiers who were gunned down by army defectors in a retaliatory ambush after government troops destroyed a civilian car, activists said.

It was the second day in a row in which an attack by President Bashar Assad's forces on civilians appears to have brought a quick and deadly act of revenge by anti-regime fighters. The ambush was the latest sign that the once-peaceful protest movement is growing into an insurgency.

The brazen midday attack came hours after troops fired upon a civilian car traveling through the village of Khattab in the countryside of the central province of Hama, killing all five passengers inside.

The vehicle "exploded in a ball of fire," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground inside the country.

Hours later, he said, gunmen ambushed a convoy of four military jeeps passing through the nearby village of al-Asharna on the northern outskirts of the city of Hama, spraying it with bullets. The gunmen are believed to be military defectors seeking revenge for the dawn attack targeting the car, he said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the ambush, but the Free Syrian Army, a Turkish-based defector group, has in the past claimed similar attacks across the country.

Abdul-Rahman and other activists who confirmed the initial car attack did not say why soldiers targeted the vehicle, but security forces frequently hunt for suspects in the restive area.

"The area is a stronghold of dissent where anti-regime protests are routinely held and where there are a number of (army) defectors," he said.

The Local Coordination Committees group said the car was destroyed by a shell fired by the army. A third activist based in Syria who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal said the car was struck by a hail of bullets.

The differing accounts could not be immediately reconciled.

Activists said 17 other people were believed killed by security forces in Homs, Idlib, Daraa and elsewhere.

The Observatory also reported heavy gunfire in Hirak village in the southern province of Daraa, as troops backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers hunted for activists. Three anti-regime military defectors were wounded in clashes with Syrian security forces in the area, it said.

The new shootings follow a spike in violence which left 38 dead on Tuesday, mostly in a restive northwestern province bordering Turkey.

The fighting in Idlib province included an ambush by army defectors, who killed seven government troops traveling in a convoy. Activists said the defectors were avenging the shooting of 11 civilians in a nearby village.

A 46-year-old Turkish citizen, Munur Dural, was killed near the northern city of Idlib, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency said without citing sources on Wednesday.

NTV television, citing local sources, said Dural was killed Tuesday when he was caught in the middle of a shootout near Idlib. Dural was returning to Saudi Arabia after vacationing in Turkey, the channel added.

There was no immediate comment from Turkey's Foreign Ministry.

The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have been killed since the revolt erupted in March.

Separately, a pro-government newspaper reported Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustafa, has been named envoy to China.

Al-Watan newspaper said President Assad had issued a decree appointing Mustafa, who was recalled in October in response to the Washington's withdrawal of U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford from Damascus over security concerns. Ford returned to Syria last week.

There was no official confirmation from Syrian authorities of the newspaper report. It was not immediately clear whether the appointment would affect strained relations, or whether it meant Syria would keep the U.S. post vacant.

China, along with Russia — two veto-wielding countries on the U.N. Security Council — have been supportive of Damascus. Last month the two countries vetoed a Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the bloodshed in Syria.