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Turkish-backed rebels have committed war crimes against the Kurds in Syria, including cold-blooded executions of civilians, according to top U.S. officials and rights group Amnesty International.
James Jeffrey, U.S. special envoy for Syria, told a House of Representatives hearing Wednesday that Washington was demanding answers from Ankara over apparent violations by Turkey-backed rebels since the offensive began on Oct. 9. “We’ve seen several incidents which we consider war crimes,” he said.
Amnesty International said it had collected “damning” evidence of war crimes, including by Turkish forces themselves, such as indiscriminate airstrikes that have killed civilians — including children — in areas where there were no legitimate military targets nearby.
But the most vivid atrocities have been those carried out — and documented on camera phones — by Turkish-backed militia. In one attack, Hevrin Khalaf, the secretary general of the Future Syria political party, was dragged from her vehicle and executed with multiple gunshots to the head by fighters from the Turkey-backed militia Ahrar al-Sharqiya.
“They dragged her out of the car, beat her, and shot her in cold blood,” Diana Semaan, Syria researcher at Amnesty International, told VICE News.
The ambush, in which Khalaf’s bodyguard was also executed, took place on a highway between Raqqa and Qamishli on Oct. 12. In widely-circulated videos, filmed by the Turkey-backed fighters themselves, they boasted over the corpses of their victims, calling them “pigs.”
“Killing defenseless people in cold blood is utterly reprehensible and a blatant war crime,” said Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s secretary general. “Unless Turkey reins in its proxy forces and ends impunity for violations, it will encourage further atrocities.”
Semaan said that Ahrar al-Sharqiya fighters committed another war crime by kidnapping two civilians at the same location that day, both of them employees of a local medical organization who were transporting medicine at the time. She said the abducted men’s whereabouts remained a mystery to their families.
She said Turkey had also committed war crimes by indiscriminately targeting civilian targets. In one of the worst attacks, Turkish munitions landed near a school in Salhiye where displaced civilians were sheltering at about 7 a.m. on Oct. 12. According to testimony from a Kurdish Red Crescent worker who pulled bodies from the wreckage, four people were killed, including two children. There were no military targets anywhere in the area, Amnesty said.
In another incident the following day, six civilians, including a journalist, were killed in a Turkish airstrike on a civilian convoy of about 400 vehicles traveling between Qamishli and Ras al-Ain.
“All parties to the conflict must respect international humanitarian law, which requires that all feasible precautions are taken to avoid, or at least minimize, civilian harm,” said Naidoo. “Striking a civilian convoy is inexcusable.”
Turkey has denied committing any violations, but it says the Syrian National Army, the coalition of Syrian armed groups it supports, is investigating the alleged atrocities by Ahrar al-Sharqiya. But Semaan said that wasn’t good enough. “Turkey has an obligation to ensure the armed groups it supports don’t carry out violations,” she said.
The Kurdish Red Crescent says it is continuing to uncover evidence of the illegal killing of civilians by Turkish-backed militia. In a report Thursday night, it said the bodies of three nurses — two women and a man — killed by Turkish-backed fighters had been recovered from a sewage system in the town of Suluk.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper also said Tuesday that he had seen reports of atrocities committed by Turkish-backed militia, saying: “If accurate, and I assume that they are accurate, they would be war crimes.”
U.K.-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 120 civilians have been killed since Turkey launched its offensive to clear Kurdish forces from a zone along its border on Oct. 9. More than 270 Kurdish fighters, nearly 200 Turkish-backed militia men, 10 Turkish and five Syrian soldiers have been killed in the fighting, it said.
Despite complaints from Kurdish authorities that Turkey was violating a Russian-brokered agreement to halt its assault in return for a Kurdish withdrawal from the border, the U.N. special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen said Friday that the ceasefire seemed to be holding, “by and large.”
Cover: Screen capture of cell phone footage of fighters from the Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sharqiya militia on Oct. 12.