Protesters ‘tortured and killed’ in rebel province

Syrian forces have tortured and killed civilians in the rebellious province of Homs in an assault that indicates crimes against humanity, an international human rights group said yesterday.

Human Rights Watch called for the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership.

Its report came as Syria yesterday faced another day of anti-government protests, which have become a weekly ritual after Friday afternoon prayers during the eight-month-old uprising.

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At least 13 people died as Syrian security forces fired on anti-government protests and conducted sweeping raids, activists said.

The violence has spiked dramatically amid increasing signs that some protesters are taking up arms to protect themselves.

There have also been reports of intense battles between soldiers and army defectors, setting the stage for even more bloodshed.

The Arab League, which brokered a Syrian peace plan last week, scheduled an emergency meeting for today at its headquarters in Cairo to discuss the failure to stop the bloodshed.

The UN estimates 3,500 have been killed nationwide since mid-March. Homs, Syria’s third-largest city in a province of the same name, has emerged as the epicentre of the uprising.

“Homs is a microcosm of the Syrian government’s brutality,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

“The Arab League needs to tell President (Bashar) Assad that violating their agreement has consequences, and that it now supports Security Council action to end the carnage.”

In a 63-page report Human Rights Watch said security forces killed at least 587 civilians in Homs from mid-April to the end of August – the highest number for any single province.

It said former detainees reported torture including security forces’ use of heated metal rods, electric shocks and stress positions.

Witnesses also reported large-scale military operations during which security forces used heavy machine guns, including anti-aircraft guns mounted on armoured vehicles.

The group acknowledged that some protesters and army defectors took up arms to protect themselves – a development that some fear plays directly into the regime’s hands by giving it an excuse to use extreme violence against a mostly peaceful movement.

“Violence by protesters or defectors deserves further investigation,” the report said.

“However, these incidents by no means justify the disproportionate and systematic use of lethal force against demonstrators, which clearly exceeded any justifiable response to any threat presented by overwhelmingly unarmed crowds.”

Although the crackdown has led to broad international isolation, Assad appears to have a firm grip on power.

Sanctions are chipping away at the regime, but the economy has not collapsed. There have been defections from the army, but most appear to be low-level conscripts.

The government has largely sealed off the country from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting.

Damascus agreed to the Arab League-brokered plan last week, but the violence only accelerated.

Yesterday, the country’s two main activist groups reported at least 10 deaths in Homs and three others in Daraa in the south and elsewhere.

Human Rights groups and activists reported protests in the Damascus suburbs, Daraa and Idlib near the Turkish border.