As Killings Go on, Syria Reacts Strongly to War-Crimes Petition

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The Syrian government reacted with outrage on Saturday to a petition from 58 countries asking that it be investigated for war crimes, even as reports of new atrocities surfaced a day after the United Nations' top human rights official called forcefully for the case to be referred to the International Criminal Court.

"The Syrian government regrets the persistence of these countries in following the wrong approach and refusing to recognize the duty of the Syrian state to protect its people from terrorism imposed from abroad," the Foreign Ministry said.

The Syrian government uses the word terrorists as a blanket term for its opponents, many of whom took up arms after the government fired on demonstrators early in 2011. Some rebel groups have increasingly used tactics like car bombs and other weapons that kill indiscriminately. Yet opposition supporters say the government has committed by far the majority of wanton attacks on civilians, using airstrikes and artillery barrages on residential neighborhoods.

The BBC reported Friday that it had found evidence of a massacre that government opponents said was carried out Tuesday in Al Haswiya, a suburb of Homs in northern Syria.

The BBC reported that visibly shocked villagers said at least 100 people, almost all of them Sunni Muslims, had been killed. Soldiers escorting the BBC journalists blamed the extremist group Jabhet al-Nusra for the killings, while out of earshot of the soldiers, villagers blamed the army and said some soldiers had apologized for the killings.

"Three charred bodies lay sprawled just inside one house. A trail of blood stained the cement," the BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet reported from the scene. "In the kitchen, where china teacups sat neatly on a shelf, more than a dozen bullet casings were scattered across a floor smeared with blood. In another room, two more burnt corpses were curled up next to a broken bed."

On Friday, Unicef's director for the Middle East and North Africa, Maria Calivis, condemned what she called "the terrible price children are paying" in Syria, condemning the Haswiya killings of "whole families" and the deaths of women and children last week in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus, and in explosions at Aleppo University that killed more than 80 people.

Each side accused the other of responsibility for the blasts in Aleppo and for other large explosions in Dara'a and Aleppo on Thursday -- possibly from surface-to-surface missiles, whose frequent use would represent another escalation in the conflict.

On Friday, the United Nations commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, expressed dismay over the lack of Security Council action to halt the violence in Syria, where the death toll has surpassed 60,000.

She said her job was to give voice to the victims, and "certainly they see the situation as the United Nations not carrying out its responsibility to protect victims."

Ms. Pillay strongly backed the call by 58 countries this month that the Security Council send Syria's case to the International Criminal Court for investigation. Russia has made it clear that it will veto any such action.

Syria's statement on Saturday accused some of the countries that signed the petition of "deceit and double standards," blaming Syria for war crimes while financing, training and hosting "terrorists."

"At the same time that they express their concern about the Syrian people and humanitarian laws, these countries ignore the political, media, logistical and military support that armed gangs are receiving," it said.

It blamed the opposition's foreign backers for "hindering the Syrian national dialogue" proposed on Jan. 6 by President Bashar al-Assad, who said he would talk only with opposition groups he considered to be loyal to Syria.

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main exile opposition group, began meeting on Saturday in Istanbul in an effort to form a transitional government. The group has been recognized by many countries as Syria's sole legitimate representative, but it has yet to consolidate support among rebels on the ground or to take on concrete planning for a post-Assad future.

The Western and Arab nations that pressed the opposition to reorganize its umbrella group last year had urged it to choose a prime minister, but the opposition leaders have so far been unable to agree on a candidate.

A member of the opposition, Kamal al-Labwani, said the group needed to choose a prime minister to maintain credibility. The coalition has yet to produce the results it was hoping for: getting other nations to provide the support the rebels need by persuading them that the group can control the flow of arms and head off sectarian tensions and religious extremism -- trends the opposition attributes to international inaction, forcing the rebels to turn to extremist sponsors.

Mr. Labwani said his bloc of secular liberals would nominate Riad Hijab, the former prime minister and the highest-ranking defector, as prime minister, a choice that others are likely to oppose because they view him as too close to Mr. Assad.

Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting from the United Nations.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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