United Nations experts are investigating allegations that rebels killed dozens of Syrian soldiers in a village near Aleppo after they captured it from government troops, an incident that could amount to a war crime, the world body's human rights chief said Friday.
Navi Pillay said in a statement that a U.N team in the region is looking into reports about killings that followed the battle in Khan al-Assal in July. Pillay said the team has examined activists' videos and collected accounts from people in Aleppo on an incident that she called "deeply shocking."
While abuses by troops loyal to President Bashar Assad have been systematic and widespread throughout the two-year conflict, human rights groups have said the frequency and scale of rebel abuses also has increased in recent months. Specific allegations against opposition fighters include claims that rebels have routinely killed captured soldiers and suspected regime informers.
Rebels say any such violations are condemned and an unfortunate result of the brutal regime crackdown.
Another team of UN investigators will arrive in Syria within the next few days to investigate a previous incident in Khan al-Assal where the Syrian government and rebels have blamed each other for a purported chemical weapons attack on March 19.
Rebels have responded to both probes - over recent war crimes and over alleged chemical weapons use - positively, welcoming outside experts.
In a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Friday, the opposition Syrian National Coalition urged the UN to "act without delay to investigate reported incidents of chemical weapons use."
"Both the Syrian Coalition and the Supreme Military Council stand ready to cooperate fully with representatives of the mission and welcome UN investigators into all territories under our control," the letter said.
In a separate a letter concerning the reports of recent killings in Khan al-Assal sent to the UN Security Council Friday, the Coalition urged council members to "take immediate steps to refer the Syrian case to the International Criminal Court," the world's permanent war crimes tribunal.
"Only by holding the violators of human rights accountable for their crime will the violence in Syria end," said the letter dated Aug. 1 and signed by the coalition's UN representative, Najib Ghadbian.
The second letter made no mention of Khan al-Assal, but it "condemns all atrocities committed by all parties" and reiterates the coalition's pledge to assist the UN commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria, "including in liberated areas."
The coalition noted Monday's statement by Paulo Pinheiro, head of the UN commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria, to the UN General Assembly saying "massacres and other unlawful killings are perpetrated with impunity" — most by pro-government forces and some by anti-government armed groups.
Opposition fighters in recent weeks have suffered major setbacks on the battlefield. Infighting among various armed groups also has plagued rebel ranks, weakening the opposition's campaign against Assad's rule.
The capturing of Khan al-Assal on July 21 was a rare success for the opposition, one overshadowed by activists' claims that rebels had killed 150 government soldiers after taking the village. Some of the soldiers who were killed had surrendered to the rebels, the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Syrian state media reported that rebels killed 123 "civilians and military personnel" in Khan al-Assal.
In a statement issued in Geneva on Friday, Pillay said two of the videos the UN team reviewed apparently show government soldiers being ordered to lie on the ground, while another shows several bodies scattered along a wall and a number of bodies at an adjacent site.
Preliminary findings of the UN probe also suggests that armed opposition groups, in one incident documented by video, executed at least 30 individuals, the majority of whom appeared to be soldiers, Pillay said.
"These images, if verified, suggest that executions were committed in Khan Al-Assal," Pillay said. She called for a "thorough independent investigation to establish whether war crimes have been committed."
She also warned that opposition forces "should not think they are immune from prosecution."
Syria's main opposition bloc last week condemned the killings and blamed them on "armed groups" not affiliated with the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. The umbrella group of opposition fighters is known as The Free Syrian Army. Although rebel groups — including the radical Islamic ones — share a common goal of toppling Assad, they operate independently on the battlefield. Islamic factions have been gaining influence and groups such as the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra front have led major battles in the past year.
In a statement last week, the Nusra Front confirmed its fighters had participated in the battle for Khan al-Assal. The group has not claimed responsibility for the soldiers' killings, though it did confirm that 150 soldiers, pro-government gunmen and Shiite militiamen were killed in Khan al-Assal.
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