U.N. probes allegations of rebel atrocities in Syria

In this image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, columns of smoke billow above houses as a result of heavy bombing in Damascus, Syria, Monday July 22, 2013. Syrian rebels seized a strategic village on the edge of the northern city of Aleppo on Monday, activists said, just hours after other opposition fighters sustained some of their heaviest losses in months in battles to the south near the capital, Damascus.
AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video

BEIRUT United Nations experts are investigating allegations that rebels killed dozens of Syrian soldiers in a village near Aleppo after they captured it from government troops, an incident that could amount to a war crime, the world body's human rights chief said Friday.

Navi Pillay said in a statement that a U.N team in the region is looking into reports about killings that followed the battle in Khan al-Assal in July. Pillay said the team has examined activists' videos and collected accounts from people in Aleppo on an incident that she called "deeply shocking."

While abuses by troops loyal to President Bashar Assad have been systematic and widespread throughout the two-year conflict, human rights groups have said the frequency and scale of rebel abuses also has increased in recent months. Specific allegations against opposition fighters include claims that rebels have routinely killed captured soldiers and suspected regime informers.

Rebels say any such violations are condemned and an unfortunate result of the brutal regime crackdown.

In a letter to the U.N. Security Council obtained Friday by The Associated Press, the opposition Syrian National Coalition urged council members to "take immediate steps to refer the Syrian case to the International Criminal Court," the world's permanent war crimes tribunal.

"Only by holding the violators of human rights accountable for their crime will the violence in Syria end," said the letter dated Aug. 1 and signed by the coalition's U.N. representative, Najib Ghadbian.

The letter made no mention of Khan al-Assal, but it "condemns all atrocities committed by all parties" and reiterates the coalition's pledge to assist the U.N. commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria, "including in liberated areas."

The coalition noted Monday's statement by Paulo Pinheiro, head of the U.N. commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria, to the U.N. General Assembly saying "massacres and other unlawful killings are perpetrated with impunity" — most by pro-government forces and some by anti-government armed groups.

Opposition fighters in recent weeks have suffered major setbacks on the battlefield. Infighting among various armed groups also has plagued rebel ranks, weakening the opposition's campaign against Assad's rule.

The capturing of Khan al-Assal on July 21 was a rare success for the opposition, one overshadowed by activists' claims that rebels had killed 150 government soldiers after taking the village. Some of the soldiers who were killed had surrendered to the rebels, the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Syrian state media reported that rebels killed 123 "civilians and military personnel" in Khan al-Assal.

In a statement issued in Geneva on Friday, Pillay said two of the videos the U.N. team reviewed apparently show government soldiers being ordered to lie on the ground, while another shows several bodies scattered along a wall and a number of bodies at an adjacent site.

Preliminary findings of the U.N. probe also suggests that armed opposition groups, in one incident documented by video, executed at least 30 individuals, the majority of whom appeared to be soldiers, Pillay said.

"These images, if verified, suggest that executions were committed in Khan Al-Assal," Pillay said. She called for a "thorough independent investigation to establish whether war crimes have been committed."

She also warned that opposition forces "should not think they are immune from prosecution."