BEIRUT - Syrian forces have detained and tortured children as young as 13 as President Bashar Assad's regime tries to crush a nearly 11-month-old uprising, Human Rights Watch said Friday, as fresh clashes erupted between regime troops and rebels in the country's south.
Friday's fighting in Jassem, in the southern province of Daraa, killed at least one soldier and wounded five, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. In the north, a roadside bomb killed two boys in the province of Idlib, state media and activists said.
The Syrian conflict has grown more militarized in recent months as army defectors have joined the uprising against Assad and formed a guerrilla force. The armed resistance has in turn provoked a heavier regime assault on areas where the defectors are fighting.
The United Nations estimated in January that at least 5,400 people have been killed in the crackdown, including soldiers who defected and those who refused orders to fire on civilians. But the U.N. has been unable to update its tally since because the chaos in the country has made it difficult to cross-check the latest figures.
On Friday, Human Rights Watch said in a new report that it has documented at least 12 cases of children detained under "inhumane" conditions and tortured, as well as children shot in their homes or on the street.
"Children have not been spared the horror of Syria's crackdown," said Lois Whitman, children's rights director at the New York-based group. "Syrian security forces have killed, arrested, and tortured children in their homes, their schools, or on the streets. In many cases, security forces have targeted children just as they have targeted adults."
The report quoted a 16-year-old boy from the town of Tal Kalakh near the Lebanese border as saying he was detained for eight months during which he was held in seven different detention centers, as well as the Homs Central Prison.
The boy, whom HRW referred to as Alaa, said security forces first asked him how many protests he participated in, and then cuffed his left hand to the ceiling and left him hanging there for about seven hours, standing on his toes.
"They beat me for about two hours with cables and shocked me with cattle prods. Then they threw water on the ground and poured water on me from above," he said.
In another case, the parents of a 13-year-old boy from the coastal city of Latakia told HRW that in December security officers arrested him and held him for nine days. According to his parents, he was accused of burning photos of Assad, vandalizing security forces' cars and inciting other children to protest.
Security officers burned him with cigarettes on his neck and hands, the parents said, and threw boiling water on his body.
An adult former detainee told the rights group that some children were raped while in detention.
Also Friday, activists reported protests across Syria, including in the central provinces of Hama and Homs, the northern region of Idlib, in towns and villages in the south as well as areas around the capital, Damascus.
The Observatory said more than 20,000 people marched in the streets of the southern villages of Dael and Nawa where security forces opened fire to disperse the crowds. The report could not be independently confirmed.
The Local Coordination Committees activist group said security forces killed at least 12 people Friday while the Observatory said four people were shot dead.
The Observatory said "tens of people" were wounded when security forces opened fire to disperse protesters in the predominantly Kurdish town of Afreen in the northern Aleppo province.
Many of the protesters were commemorating the 1982 Hama massacre.
The assault was ordered by Assad's father and predecessor Hafez Assad, following an armed rebellion by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group in the city.
Amnesty International has estimated that between 10,000 and 25,000 people were killed in the 1982 siege of Hama, though conflicting figures exist and the Syrian government has never made an official estimate.
The latest protests and clashes came a day after diplomats failed to reach agreement on a U.N. resolution aimed at ending the bloodshed in Syria, leaving discussions in limbo pending consultations with their home governments.
Envoys said that yet another text is being drawn up for them to send to their capitals for consideration.