- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 20, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — An international human rights group on Tuesday accused some in Syria’s armed opposition of carrying out serious abuses, including the kidnapping and torture of security forces, in a sign of the growing complexity of the year-old uprising against President Bashar Assad.

The statement by Human Rights Watch comes as Syria’s rebellion transforms into an insurgency, with army defectors and other government opponents taking up arms to drive out Mr. Assad. The development has added another violent dimension to a conflict that has killed 8,000 people since last March.

“The Syrian government’s brutal tactics cannot justify abuses by armed opposition groups,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Opposition leaders should make it clear to their followers that they must not torture, kidnap or execute under any circumstances.”

The Syrian uprising began with mostly peaceful protests against the government, inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings across the region. But the regime cracked down violently, opening fire on demonstrations and rounding up thousands of protesters. Mr. Assad has justified the crackdown by saying terrorists and foreign extremists are driving the revolt.

The regime has used the increasing attacks on security forces and military sites as vindication that it is facing an extremist threat.

But the opposition denies that, saying Mr. Assad’s opponents have been forced to take up weapons because government troops used tanks and snipers on peaceful protests.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch made Tuesday’s statement in an open letter to the opposition Syrian National Council. The group stressed that many of the anti-government groups reported to be carrying out abuses do not appear to belong to an organized command structure or to be following orders from the Syrian National Council.

But Syria’s opposition leadership has a responsibility to speak out and condemn such abuses, Human Rights Watch said. The group also said it has received reports of executions by armed opposition groups of security force members and civilians.

SNC leaders did not immediately respond to calls by the Associated Press seeking comment.

The most potent armed force fighting Mr. Assad’s regime is the Free Syrian Army, made up of army defectors and others, but there are other, smaller groups operating as well.

The report cited witnesses who told Human Rights Watch that armed groups identifying themselves with the opposition are kidnapping both civilians and members of the security forces.

An activist identified as Mazen said he learned that three people who worked with the government had been tortured to death in Idlib in northern Syria, an opposition stronghold.

Another Syrian activist identified as Samih told HRW that members of the Free Syrian Army were kidnapping soldiers.

“They would kidnap them and ask their parents to pay a ransom to let them go,” Samih said, according to Human Rights Watch. The Free Syrian Army denied kidnapping soldiers, saying they were detaining them during military operations.

The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have been killed in the yearlong uprising, which has deeply polarized Syria, which the Assad family has ruled for more than 40 years.

On Monday, Syrian rebels battled regime forces in a heavily protected, upscale area of Damascus, activists said, in a sign that the country’s outgunned opposition is increasingly turning to insurgent tactics.

Russia said Tuesday it is ready to support a U.N. resolution endorsing former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s plan for settling the Syrian crisis, signaling it is prepared to raise the pressure on its old ally.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that the resolution shouldn’t turn into an ultimatum to the Syrian government, setting the stage for tough bargaining over the wording of the document at the Security Council. But Mr. Lavrov’s statement appeared to indicate a shift in Moscow’s stance, showing signs of impatience with Mr. Assad.

Russia and China have twice shielded Assad’s regime from U.N. sanctions over its yearlong crackdown on protesters. But the Kremlin has also offered strong support to Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general who is now a joint U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria.



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