Syrian forces are sowing minefields along the border with Turkey and Lebanon even as thousands of refugees flee a widening crackdown by President Bashar al- Assad’s military.
The landmines are already causing civilian casualties, Human Rights Watch said today in a statement on its website. The New York-based group showed pictures of anti-personnel mines with Cyrillic lettering which it said were PMN-2 devices of Russian or Soviet origin. They had been removed by volunteer deminers, it said.
“The Syrian army should cease its use of antipersonnel landmines and recognize that planting this internationally banned weapon will hurt Syrians for years to come,” Human Rights Watch said in the report. Steve Goose, director of the arms division at the New York-based organization said, “Any use of antipersonnel landmines is unconscionable.”
A total of 159 countries have signed the anti-personnel landmine convention since 1997, according to the United Nations. Syria and Russia are not among them. About 32,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, following 12 months of civil unrest and fighting.
In one case, a Syrian deminer said that landmines had been laid near the village of Hasanieih, close to the Turkish frontier. The devices were planted between fruit trees, three meters from the border in two parallel lines, each about 500 meters (550 yards) long, the deminer told Human Rights Watch.
“Local villagers told him that the army had informed farmers in the area that they need army permission to enter the orchards, but had not told them that the area was mined,” the report said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland today said that the Syrian authorities were fencing “their own people in” and described such action as “horrific.”
Assad’s military killed at least 114 people yesterday as they targeted opposition areas in the north including Idlib, where security forces killed about 40 people at a mosque, Al Arabiya television reported, citing activists. The Local Coordination Committees in Syria said a further 22 died today.
After retaking Homs from opposition forces after a monthlong siege on March 2, Assad’s forces have surrounded Damascus suburbs and moved north, according to daily reports from the Local Coordination Committees website. Idlib is under “intensive” shelling by the regime’s army, according to the latest report yesterday. A pro-government newspaper today reported that the town had fallen to Assad’s forces, according to the Associated Press.
‘Crimes Against Humanity’
Violence against Syrian civilians “could be described as crimes against humanity” and should be the subject of an international investigation, said Nabil el-Arabi, secretary general of the Arab League, as reported by Egypt’s state-run news agency.
Assad today set May 7 as the date for parliamentary elections, according to a statement posted on the Syrian People’s Assembly website. The State Department’s Nuland described the development as “ridiculous” and referred to the country’s parliament as an institutional “rubber stamp.”
Pressure on the UN to act is mounting following a visit by special envoy Kofi Annan to Damascus, where he met with Assad to negotiate an end to the conflict and sought access for humanitarian aid. The Syrian president will respond today to the UN proposals, Annan told reporters in Ankara.
‘Friends of Syria’
“The Syrian people have certain demands and those demands deserve to be met,” the state-run Anatolia news agency reported Annan as saying in Ankara today.
Turkey is convening the second “Friends of Syria” meeting on April 2, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said today, as an international alliance seeks alternatives to end the violence following two Russian and Chinese vetoes of UN measures to halt attacks. At least 7,500 people have died since last March.
“With our international partners, we’ll continue to tighten the noose around Bashar al-Assad and his cohorts, and we’ll work with the opposition and the United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to plan for the transition that will follow Assad’s departure from power,” U.S. President Barack Obama and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said in a joint article published in the Washington Post today.
Turkey will support all international measures to stop Assad’s yearlong crackdown, Erdogan told Annan. The envoy said the Syrian National Council had agreed with the UN to resolve the crisis after meeting Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the leading opposition alliance.
In New York, the impasse on Syria among the Security Council’s veto-wielding members continued. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Assad’s military attacks while meeting Annan “cynical” and the administration continued to press for the Syrian president’s departure.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized the “risky recipes of geopolitical engineering” put forward at the UN. Russia today said it would continue arms sales to Syria.
To contact the reporters on this story: Emre Peker in Ankara at email@example.com; Donna Abu-Nasr in Manama at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at email@example.com