Syrian opposition groups killed at least 190 civilians during an operation against a regime stronghold in early August, according to a report released Friday by Human Rights Watch. Fighters reportedly also seized over 200 hostages, some of whom remain in captivity.
The human rights organization writes in its new report that on Aug. 4, the fighters of 20 armed opposition groups launched a coordinated offensive in the Northern coastal province of Latakia that lasted several days. The fighters quickly overran government troops in the area and advanced to pro-government Alawite villages. Based on the accounts of witnesses, medical records and video footage, HRW concluded that the rebels killed at least 190 civilians. At least 67 were executed or unlawfully killed, the organization stated.
"When I was in the Latakia countryside, people came up to us and they described in detail finding dead relatives either in a mass grave or in their homes in the village," said Lama Fakih, a Syria researcher for HRW. "Village after village, homes had been destroyed. Homes had been burned and the population was by and large not around."
"One of the patterns that emerged was that opposition fighters were systematically killing adult men and trying to keep women and children alive as hostages," Fakih explained.
According to Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, the abuses were not the action of rogue fighters but part of a coordinated, planned attack on the civilian population.
It is unclear whether all 20 opposition groups participated in the atrocities. However, HRW says at least five groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra were confirmed as present.
One resident of a hamlet between the villages of Blouta and al-Hamboushieh told HRW:
My mom was here in the house with me. She came out of the house first, and I was behind her. We saw the three fighters just in front of us, and then we fled on foot down behind the house and into the valley. The three fighters that I saw were all dressed in black. They were shooting at us from two different directions. They had machine guns and were using snipers. My older brother came down and hid with us as well. We hid, but my dad stayed in the house. He was killed in his bed. My aunt, she is an 80 year old blind woman, was also killed in her room. Her name is Nassiba.
The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have died in Syria since the start of the conflict in March 2011. Four million people have left their homes to flee the violence.
The HRW report comes in the wake of a U.N. investigation that established that Syrian regime forces -- and to a lesser extent, opposition fighters -- were guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The U.N. panel investigated nine mass killings perpetrated in the country, attributing eight to regime fighters and one to rebels. Investigators said fighters on both sides had engaged in attacks on civilians, unlawful killings, rape and torture.
“Relentless shelling has killed thousands of civilians and displaced the populations of entire towns,” the U.N. panel said, according to The New York Times. “Massacres and other unlawful killings are perpetrated with impunity. An untold number of men, children and women have disappeared. Many have died in detention.”