Watchdog accuses some Syrian rebels of abuses

A Syrian rebel stands next to a flaming tire while firing at a Syrian army checkpoint, in a suburb of Damascus, Syria, on Saturday, March 17, 2012.
AP Photo

(AP) BEIRUT - Armed elements of the Syrian opposition have carried out serious abuses including the kidnapping and torture of security force members, an international human rights group said Tuesday as the country's yearlong uprising transforms into an insurgency.

Army defectors and other government opponents have taken up arms to drive out President Bashar Assad by force, adding another violent dimension to a conflict that has killed 8,000 people since last March.

"The Syrian government's brutal tactics cannot justify abuses by armed opposition groups," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Opposition leaders should make it clear to their followers that they must not torture, kidnap, or execute under any circumstances."

Syria: Armed Opposition Groups Committing Abuses (Human Rights Watch)

The Syrian opposition says Assad's opponents have been forced to take up weapons because government troops used tanks and snipers on peaceful protests. But the regime has used rebel attacks to justify its crackdown, saying terrorists and foreign extremists are driving the revolt.

Human Rights Watch also has received reports of executions by armed opposition groups of security force members and civilians.

New York-based Human Rights Watch made Tuesday's statement in an open letter to the opposition Syrian National Council. The group stressed that many of the anti-government groups reported to be carrying out abuses do not appear to belong to an organized command structure or to be following Syrian National Council orders.

But Syria's opposition leadership has a responsibility to speak out and condemn such abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

HRW's open letter to Syrian opposition

The U.N. says more than 8,000 people have been killed in the yearlong uprising, which has deeply polarized a country where the Assad family has ruled for more than 40 years.

On Monday, Syrian rebels battled regime forces in a heavily protected, upscale area of Damascus, activists said, in a sign that the country's outgunned opposition is increasingly turning to insurgent tactics.

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The uprising began with mostly peaceful protests against the government, inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings across the region. But the regime cracked down violently, opening fire on demonstrations and rounding up thousands of protesters.

Russia, a key Assad ally, said the Syrian government and rebels should halt their fighting once a day to give the Red Cross access to the wounded. The call came after Russian officials met with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had urged Moscow to take such a stand.

Russia had previously backed the ICRC's call for a cease-fire, but Monday's statement from the Foreign Ministry was worded more strongly than previous ones in an apparent signal that Moscow is raising the pressure on Syria.