BEIRUT – A new video appears to show Syrian rebels killing a group of captured soldiers, spraying them with bullets as they lay on the ground. Human rights groups on Friday warned that the gunmen may have committed a war crime.
The video raises concerns over brutality among some rebels just ahead of a major conference this weekend in Qatar at which the United States is trying to unify the opposition under a new leadership. Washington and its allies have been hesitant to give stronger support to the rebellion in part because of worries over its multiple divisions and lack of organization.
The killings took place Thursday during an assault by rebels on the northern town of Saraqeb, the scene of heavy fighting in past weeks between rebels and forces of President Bashar Assad’s regime, according to an anti-regime activist organization, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Rebels are now in full control of Saraqeb after regime troops pulled back during Thursday’s fighting, the Observatory said. That gives the rebels a strategic point on the main highway linking Syria’s largest city Aleppo – which rebels have been trying to capture for months – with the regime stronghold of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.
Reports of serious human rights abuses by elements within the armed opposition have been on the rise, badly damaging the rebels’ claims of moral high ground in the civil war and fueling concerns that they are capable of a brutality matching that of the regime they are seeking to topple.
The issue is complicated by the fragmented nature of the rebellion. Even rebel units nominally under the umbrella Free Syrian Army group operate independently, and as the 19-month-old conflict drags on, criminals, foreign Islamic militants and other renegades have joined in the fight against Assad.
In early August, a video showed several bloodied prisoners being led into a noisy outdoor crowd in the northern city of Aleppo and placed against a wall before gunmen open fire and shoot them to death. According to activists, the slain prisoners were members of the powerful Barri clan, which has long had close ties to the Syrian government.
That video sparked international condemnation, including a rare rebuke of rebel tactics from the Obama administration.
There have been other videos of individual summary execution-style killings. Throughout the 19-month-old conflict, there have been other reports of brutal sectarian killings by opposition gunmen – including, according to one report by a Shiite watchgroup, the beheading of Iraqi Shiites living in Syria. At the same time, there have been repeated reports of massacres by regime forces and by the pro-government fighters known as shabiha.
Human rights groups said Friday they were trying to confirm the authenticity of the new video. The footage was consistent with other Associated Press reporting in the area. The video is dated Thursday, a day when the Observatory reported heavy attacks by rebels on regime checkpoints at Saraqeb.