U.N. accuses Syria of using children as human shields; Kofi Annan urges nations to "twist arms"

Syrian girls flash victory signs during a demonstration in Kfarnebel, Syria, May 29, 2012, in this citizen journalism image taken by Edlib News Network. AP Photo/Edlib News Network

(AP) UNITED NATIONS - A U.N. report released Monday includes Syrian government forces and their allied "shabiha" militias for the first time on a list of 52 governments and armed groups that recruit, kill or sexually attack children in armed conflicts.

Meanwhile, to stop the escalating violence there, U.N. envoy Kofi Annan has asked governments with influence to "twist arms" amid few signs that international pressure is having any measurable effect on the fighting.

In Syria, the report said, children as young as 9 years old have been victims of killing and maiming, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and sexual violence, and have been used as human shields.

"In almost all recorded cases, children were among the victims of military operations by government forces, including the Syrian armed forces, the intelligence forces and the shabiha militia, in their ongoing conflict with the opposition, including the Free Syrian Army," the report said.

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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's annual report on children and armed conflict during 2011 names 32 "persistent perpetrators" that have been on the list for at least five years, including the security forces of seven countries. That's double the number in 2010, and Ban expressed grave concern at "the unacceptably high, and growing, number" of long-term abusers of children.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict, said that while new crises erupted in 2011 "with a heavy toll on children such as in Syria, and also in Libya, violations against girls and boys have come to an end in other parts of the world."

But the so-called "list of shame" with 52 names — including four new parties in Syria, Yemen and Sudan — is still too long, she said in a statement.

Syria has intensified its onslaught against the opposition in recent days, ignoring an Annan-brokered ceasefire plan, mounting international condemnation and increasing economic pressure aimed at the government of President Bashar Assad.

"It is totally unacceptable and it must stop, and that is why Annan has invited governments with influence to raise the bar to another level, to the highest level possible, and twist arms if necessary, to get the parties to implement the plan," his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told reporters in Geneva.

He didn't specify the countries that might still have leverage with the Assad regime, but Russia, China and Iran are considered Syria's closest and strongest allies.

Fawzi said it was up to the government to take the first step to end the violence, which has now claimed over 13,000 lives since the conflict began in March 2011.

"The stronger party should send a strong signal in good faith and stop the violence, and the stronger party in this case is clearly the government of Syria," he said.

The secretary-general said the United Nations has received reports of "grave violations" against children in Syria since March 2011, when protests against Assad's government began.

A resolution adopted by the U.N. Security Council in 2005 took the first major step to prevent the victimization of young people in war zones by addressing the exploitation of children as combatants and identifying governments and armed groups that recruit child soldiers. In 2009, the council voted to also name and shame countries and insurgent groups engaged in conflicts that lead to children being killed, maimed and raped.

The report quoted a former member of the Syrian armed forces saying that in December, during protests in Tall Kalakh, his commander gave an order to shoot during the break-up of the demonstrations and he saw three girls, who appeared to be between 10 and 13 years old, killed. A former member of the intelligence forces was quoted as saying he witnessed the killing of five children in a secondary school during demonstrations in Aleppo in the last quarter of 2011.

The report said the Syrian military and the shabiha used children as young as 8 on at least three occasions last year.

In an attack on the village of Ayn l'Arouz in Idlib province on March 9, 2012, it quoted a witness as saying several dozen boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 13 were forcibly taken from their homes and "used by soldiers and militia members as human shields, placing them in front of the windows of buses carrying military personnel into the raid on the village."

The United Nations also has collected dozens of accounts of eyewitnesses from children as young as 14 years old who were tortured in detention, as well as from former members of the Syrian military who were forced to witness or carry out acts of torture, the report said.

Most child victims of torture described being beaten, blindfolded, subjected to stress positions, whipped with heavy electrical cables, scarred by cigarette burns and in one case subjected to electrical shock to the genitals, the report said. One witness reported seeing a boy about 15 years old die as a result of repeated beatings. Another 15-year-old repeatedly beaten with heavy electrical cables during interrogation reported at least 20 other children his age or younger being held in detention, it said.

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