ASSAD'S TROOPS SLAUGHTERED US LIKE SHEEP, CLAIM REFUGEES
By Alastair Beach and John Lichfield
March 6, 2012
Refugees fleeing though farmland from marauding Syrian troops have claimed forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad are committing war crimes against civilians in Homs, slitting the throats of children and slaughtering their victims "like sheep."
Human rights groups have said that gunmen who seized the Homs district of Baba Amr last week were rounding up anyone over the age of 14, torturing them, and killing them.
*The Independent*, meanwhile, has spoken to activists inside the city who have said that dozens of civilians have been savagely murdered during the past few days by the feared shabiha militias.
Yesterday there were further reports of atrocities, with some of the 2,000 refugees who have fled across the border to neighboring Lebanon in the past two days telling the BBC that young children who had remained in Baba Amr had their throats cut by advancing troops.
One mother said that soldiers had detained 36 men and boys on Friday before executing them. Her husband saw a soldier pin down their 12-year-old son's head with a boot while another slit his throat. "I could hear their screams," he said. Another woman said: "They took our husbands. They took them at a checkpoint. They will slaughter them like sheep."
In further evidence of the catalogue of horrors being meted out by the Syrian regime, Channel 4 News reported the torture of patients in government hospitals. The report, based on footage smuggled out of Syria, included testimony from one medical worker who described the torture of patients in the wards: "They twist the feet until the leg breaks."
Last night, volunteers from the International Committee of the Red Cross were still waiting for government approval to enter the devastated neighbourhood of Baba Amr. Locals say the Syrian regime's reluctance to grant the Red Cross access is due to the "clean-up" being conducted by government forces. Damascus claims its generals are trying to clear up the wreckage left by terrorists and armed groups.
The regime's crackdown continued yesterday as hundreds of troops were dispatched to Deraa, the southern city which was the cradle of Syria's uprising.
As diplomatic pressure continued to mount on the Syrian regime, China announced it would be dispatching an envoy to Damascus in a bid to halt the bloodshed. Baathist officials also bowed to international insistence that two other envoys previously snubbed by President Assad be granted entry -- former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.
Meanwhile the French foreign ministry yesterday dismissed as "completely without foundation" a report in a Lebanese newspaper that 13 "French officers" had been captured inside Syria.
However, Syrian opposition sources said there were more reliable reports that one French special forces officer had been "kidnapped" several days ago by Syrian troops on the Syria-Lebanon border. There have been reports in the French press of French agents or special forces operating in Lebanon close to Syria but these have not been officially confirmed in Paris.
SYRIANS FLEE TO LEBANON AMID HOMS ATROCITY CLAIMS
March 6, 2012
Thousands of Syrians have recently crossed into Lebanon, the U.N. says, amid reports that security forces are committing atrocities in Syria.
The U.N. refugee agency said as many as 2,000 people fled in the past two days.
A resident of the opposition stronghold of Homs told the BBC that soldiers had slit the throat of her 12-year-old son.
Meanwhile, the U.N. humanitarian chief said she had now been allowed to travel to Syria and would call for "unhindered access for humanitarian aid."
Valerie Amos said she planned to go to Syria on Wednesday.
Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is also due to visit Syria at the weekend as joint special envoy for the U.N. and the Arab League. On Wednesday, he will hold talks with league officials in Cairo.
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Monday that many Syrian refugees -- including women and children -- had only a few belongings as they arrived into Lebanon.
Residents of the northern Lebanese town of Arsal said that up 150 Syrian families arrived there on Sunday alone.
"What are we supposed to do? People are sitting in their homes and they are hitting us with tanks," Hassana Abu Firas, from Syria's border town of al-Qusair, told the Associated Press.
"Those who can flee, do. Those who can't will die sitting down," she added.
People fleeing the city of Homs, 15km (nine miles) from al-Qusair, have told the BBC that security forces are committing atrocities there.
One woman told the BBC's Paul Wood on the outskirts of Homs that soldiers had killed her son on Friday -- a day after rebel fighters withdrew from the Baba Amr district.
"My son's throat was cut," she said. "He was 12."
Her husband said he was hiding about 50m (160ft) away and saw one soldier hold down their son's head with his boot while another killed him.
"I could hear their screams," he added.
The woman said 35 other men and boys from her area had also been detained and killed.
Opposition and human rights activists have said security forces and pro-government militia have been rounding up men and boys over the age of 14 who are still in Baba Amr, and then torturing and killing them.
The claims cannot be independently verified.
The Syrian government has denied the Red Cross access to Baba Amr district for four consecutive days, citing security concerns.
Activists have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Several men who said they had defected from an elite army unit last week told our correspondent that civilians were being targeted by security forces and prisoners were being killed.
"A lieutenant gave us the order," he said. "We were told in this operation: 'You shoot anything that moves. Civilian or military -- you shoot at it.'"
Our correspondent says the people of Baba Amr defied the government and now they are scattered, their uprising crushed.
The U.K.'s Channel 4 News broadcast secretly shot footage on Monday that it said shows hospital patients in Homs being tortured by medical staff.
Pictures showed wards full of wounded men, shackled to their beds and blindfolded and some showing the marks of severe beatings.
The authorities have not commented and the video cannot be independently verified.
The U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told Channel 4 that the images accorded with other evidence gathered by a U.N.-backed commission of inquiry of torture in Syrian hospitals, particularly military hospitals.
An independent commission of inquiry set up by the U.N. said in February that Syrian security forces had "committed widespread, systematic, and gross human rights violations, amounting to crimes against humanity, with the apparent knowledge and consent of the highest levels of the state".
The E.U. has said it will document alleged war crimes to set the stage for a "day of reckoning" for Syria's leaders. But Russia and China have vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of the government.
Meanwhile, the body of U.S. journalist Marie Colvin is due to be flown back to New York on Tuesday morning.
Colvin, who worked for the *Sunday Times*, died in a rocket attack in Baba Amr on 22 February with French photographer Remi Ochlik.
SYRIA EYEWITNESS: HOMS REFUGEES TELL OF 'SLAUGHTER'
By Paul Wood
March 5, 2012
Outside HOMS, Syria -- The car headlights picked out a ragged group of men, women, and children walking up the road towards us. Night had just fallen. There was a bitterly cold wind.
They had endured a month of bombardment in Baba Amr then fled, panicking, before ground troops arrived.
"We're homeless," a woman shouted. "Why? Because we asked for freedom?"
She said they had been walking for three days. Their journey was so long because they walked across fields and through orchards to avoid the army checkpoints.
A terrible fear has seized people here about what the government forces are doing now that they are back in control. In a nearby house we sat with six women and their 17 children. They had arrived that day. There were no men.
"We were walking out altogether until we reached the checkpoint," said one of the women, Um Abdo.
"Then they separated us from the men. They put hoods on their heads and took them away."
Where do you think they are now, I asked. The women replied all at once: "They will be slaughtered."
Wild stories were circulating of mutilated bodies in the orchards outside Homs; of men being killed in groups there; of a truck full of bodies taken away by the army. Was this fear talking?
We met the Ibrahim family by chance while filming an aid delivery of cooking oil. They told us that on Friday, in the Jobar district of Homs, they had witnessed a massacre.
Ahmed Ibrahim told me that 36 men and boys were taken away. Among them were four members of his own family including his 12-year-old son, Hozaifa. All were dead now, he said.
He said he had seen everything, lying flat behind some trees.
He told me: "There is a major checkpoint near our house. Reinforcements arrived there. They brought Shabiha (the "ghosts" or paramilitaries). They began arresting all the men in the area so I crouched down in the orchards just beside my house.
"They started beating them up. Then they moved them into a street next to a school. They killed them all. I saw it. I was 50 to 100 meters away. Their hands were tied behind their backs. A soldier held each one still on the ground with his boot; another soldier came to cut their throats. I could hear their screams."
He said the victims included his son, two brothers, and a nephew. He thought he could count 36 bodies in the street -- the number of men and boys who had been detained.
"The army took the bodies. They are afraid that ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] would come in so they destroyed the evidence."
His wife was inside the house when the soldiers came. She said: "They knocked on the door and said if we didn't open up they would shoot through the walls. So we let them in and they took all males aged 12 and older.
"I went out to ask about my son but they shot at me. After they had killed them, they came back and searched us for mobile phones [looking for any video]. They threatened us. They said: 'We can come back at any time.' I felt that we were all going to die.
"Other families came to ask for their men and I told them that they had been slaughtered. I wish I had never gone out to witness that scene. We fled as fast as we could, leaving everything behind."
Their niece, 16-year-old Noor, was in another house. Her father -- one of Ahmed Ibrahim's brothers -- was killed.
She said: "My father went to open the door. I told him: 'Don't. Run away.' He said 'Why? I haven't done anything wrong.' He opened the door. They took him. I was clinging on to him but they took him anyway.
"As well as my father, they took my uncle, my cousin, and my brother. I went outside and saw them pushing them to the ground. Then they killed them. I heard my father shout 'God is great' as he died. The others, too. The soldiers shoved us back inside with their guns."
We do not know, yet, the truth of such allegations. But one former soldier involved in the Baba Amr operation told us that prisoners were routinely murdered. He said he had witnessed one summary execution.
"Ali" had been a sergeant in an elite unit, the Republican Guards.
Aged 21, he showed me his army identity card, dog tags, and a leave permit with the Republic Guards' stamp. He had defected only last week.
He described how an old man, "about 60 years old," was brought into his base. The man had been arrested in a raid on a house.
"The other soldiers starting beating him and cursing him and saying 'This is for freedom,'" he told me.
"An officer came. He said the same thing -- 'This is for freedom.' He made the man kneel, put a gun to his head and shot him. He emptied the whole magazine into his body. Afterwards he started stamping on the body. He got his men to film that."
Ali was the first member of the "Free Army" I had met who was Alawite, the sect from which Syria's ruling elite is drawn. He was so angered and disgusted by what he had seen in the government army, he said, he had to desert.
He was in an artillery battalion, firing 120mm mortars at Baba Amr. He left with a friend, another sergeant, "Mohammed." He told me that no one was in any doubt that civilians were being killed in the bombardment.
"The lieutenant gave us the order, handed down from the colonel," he said. "He said that in this operation, shoot at anything that moves: civilian or military, you shoot at it."
After a month of shelling, the Free Army decided to withdraw from Baba Amr. We met what we were told was the very last group of fighters to leave.
It was 02:30 and 20 men ran through sheeting rain, crouching low and carrying their rifles, past the last government checkpoint outside Homs.
One of their officers told me that retreating was the only way to bring the shelling to an end and prevent further loss of innocent life. That is the official line but the Free Army is divided over the decision to leave Baba Amr. And some of its residents are furious with them.
A phone call to a friend in Baba Amr revealed the depths of the bitterness.
"They betrayed Baba Amr," he said.
"Those who took the decision to withdraw are cowards. Now they are drinking tea and chit-chatting in Qusayr [a nearby town] and watching Baba Amr being destroyed."
He went on: "Why didn't they do something to protect us? They could have attacked the artillery positions from behind. They waited until after 30 days of bombardment to withdraw. They could have left on the first day if that's what they were going to do."
On Monday afternoon the Free Army pulled back again, hurriedly leaving the village just outside Homs where we had been staying.
They believe the government will now press its advantage, closing in on the last territory "held" by the rebel fighters. We left with them on the back of a truck.
Most of the displaced people we spoke to over the past days had already gone. They did not feel safe so close to the government's tanks and artillery.
A rebel commander told me he thought that some of the men who had been detained were being interrogated; some were being held to extract money from their families; and some had been killed.
The outside world will wait for proof of that, although the people of Baba Amr are in no doubt they are victims of a crime perpetrated by the regime.
Many women and children moved on still not knowing where husbands and fathers might be or if they would ever see them again.
They left behind two unanswered questions: how many men from Baba Amr are missing -- and what has happened to them?
MEDICAL STAFF TORTURE PATIENTS IN HOMS, SYRIA
March 5, 2012
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