Syrian forces committed war crimes in the province of Idlib during an offensive shortly before a nationwide ceasefire came into effect April 12, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
“Syrian tanks and helicopters attacked one town in Idlib after another,” Anna Neistat, associate director for programs and emergencies at HRW, said in a statement.
“It was as if the Syrian government forces used every minute before the ceasefire to cause harm,” she added.
The New York-based organization said the fighting in the northwestern province appeared to reach the level of an armed conflict under international law.
The report titled “They Burned My Heart: War Crimes in northern Idlib during Peace Plan negotiations,” accused regime forces of summary executions, arbitrary detentions and burning and destruction of civilian property.
In some of the incidents recorded by the global rights watchdog, children were executed by regime forces.
“The security forces also arbitrarily detained dozens of people, holding them without any legal basis,” HRW said.
“About two-thirds of the detainees remain in detention to date, despite promises by President Bashar al-Assad’s government to release political detainees,” it added.
According to one eyewitness account published by HRW, the mother of Mohammed Saleh Shamrukh, an anti-regime protester from Saraqeb, in Idlib province, had to watch regime forces take him away.
“I didn’t say goodbye so as to not make him sad. He didn’t say anything either. When they left, the soldiers said I should forget him,” she said.
Shamrukh was executed on March 25.
Another woman recounted how regime forces entered her home in the town of Taftanaz searching for her husband.
“They put a Kalashnikov to my head and threatened to kill us all if my husband did not come home,” she said.
“Then an officer told a soldier to get petrol and told the children that he would burn them like he would burn their father because he is a terrorist.”
She said she was finally allowed to leave the house before it was burned down on April 4 along with the houses of her five brothers-in-law.
HRW said that during the April 3-4 attack on Taftanaz, northeast of Idlib city, 19 members of the Ghazal family, including two under the age of 18, were executed by regime forces. The nine males were shot in the head or back.
A 76-year-old man identified as Ali Maassos was also gunned down by regime forces along with his wife Badrah as they tried to flee Taftanaz in a pick-up truck with other residents.
“The circumstances of these cases indicate that government forces failed to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to take necessary precautionary measures to protect civilians,” HRW said.
The rights group has previously condemned abuses by anti-regime fighters in Syria. But “these abuses by no means justify ... violations committed by the government forces.”
A putative truce came into force on April 12, as part of a peace plan brokered by United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
The plan calls for a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire, media access to all areas affected by the fighting, an inclusive Syrian-led political process, a right to demonstrate and the release of detainees.
According to the U.N., more than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria since an anti-regime uprising broke out in March last year.