(Updates with Canadian evacuation in sixth paragraph.)
Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Syrian army defectors killed 27 members of President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces in an attack at dawn, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The attack in the southern governorate of Daraa, where the nine-month uprising against Assad began, came after eight Syrian soldiers died in an ambush by deserters near Hama. At least 32 civilians were also killed yesterday. Human Rights Watch accused Syrian military and intelligence officials of giving both “direct and standing orders to use lethal force.”
Syria’s repression of protests has led to defections from the army and an escalation of clashes in which both sides are armed. Assad has blamed the unrest on foreign provocateurs and the government has used tanks, armored vehicles and artillery to crush the uprising.
“The statements of soldiers and officers who defected from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies leave no doubt that the abuses were committed in pursuance of state policy and that they were directly ordered, authorized or condoned at the highest levels of Syrian military and civilian leadership,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report published today.
The group put the death toll at more than 4,000, while the United Nations estimates the number of civilians and army defectors killed exceeds 5,000. The government says more than 1,100 members of the security forces have been killed.
Canada will start helping to evacuate its citizens from Syria, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in an e-mailed statement. Canada will expedite the issuance of documents needed to leave Syria, said Baird, citing the possibility that embassy services may be reduced “without warning” if the situation in the country deteriorates.
Human Rights Watch documented killings, torture and the arbitrary arrest of thousands of civilians by the Syrian government, acts that it said “were committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population and thus constitute crimes against humanity.”
The organization said the findings of its report are based on interviews with 63 defectors from the army and intelligence agencies. It said military commanders and intelligence officials “gave both direct and standing orders to use lethal force against the protesters, as well as to unlawfully arrest, beat and torture the detainees,” adding that Assad and other top officials “bear command responsibility.”
In an interview with ABC News on Dec. 7, Assad denied ordering the killings.
“There was no command to kill or be brutal,” he said. “They are not my forces. They are military forces that belong to the government. I don’t own them.”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the 15-member UN Security Council in New York this week that the situation in Syria was “intolerable” and said “gross violations” committed by Assad’s security forces should be referred to the International Criminal Court.
About half of the defectors interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the “commanders of their units or other officers gave direct orders to open fire at protesters or bystanders, and, in some cases, participated in the killings themselves.” The organization, citing the defectors, said the protesters “were not armed and did not present a significant threat to the security forces at the time.”
Former Syrian soldiers identified by name 74 commanders and officials responsible for attacks on unarmed protesters, Human Rights Watch said, adding that eight defectors told the organization they witnessed officers or intelligence agents killing military personnel who refused to follow orders.
Efforts by the U.S. and Europe to get a condemnation of Assad’s crackdown at the Security Council have been blocked by Russia and China. The Arab League on Dec. 3 ordered a freeze on the assets of 19 Syrian officials, a ban on their travel and a reduction in flights to Syria because the government refused to admit international monitors and release political prisoners.
--With assistance from Theophilos Argitis in Ottawa. Editors: Ben Holland, Digby Lidstone, Karl Maier, Heather Langan, Louis Meixler.
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