Syrian government forces and pro-regime militias summarily executed at least 248 men, women and children in one of the deadliest attacks since the start of the conflict in Syria more than two years ago, a report from Human Rights Watch said Friday.
The killings took place in the towns of al-Bayda and Baniyas on May 2 and 3, according to the the report.
The international non-governmental organization said its investigation was based on video evidence and interviews with 15 al-Bayda residents and five from Baniyas, including witnesses who said they saw or heard government and pro-government forces detain and then execute their relatives.
"While the world's attention is on ensuring that Syria's government can no longer use chemical weapons against its population, we shouldn't forget that Syrian government forces have used conventional means to slaughter civilians," said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
According to the report, the slaughter followed a clash between Syrian government forces and a group of opposition fighters in the town of al-Bayda on the morning of May 2.
Around 1 p.m., the opposition fighters retreated, prompting the pro-government forces to enter the village, search the houses, separate the men from the women, round up the men and execute them by shooting at close range.
The report said many women and children were spared, but Human Rights Watch documented the execution of at least 23 women and 14 children, including some infants.
Witnesses told the organization that the bodies of those executed were burned by pro-regime troops.
"In one particularly gruesome case, security forces piled up at least 25 bodies in a cellphone store on the village square and set them on fire, according to witness statements and video evidence reviewed by Human Rights Watch," the report read.
The following day, a similarly horrific scenario took place in nearby Baniyas, where government forces and pro-government militias executed dozens of residents.
A man who witnessed the aftermath of the attack, described the scene to the organization: "As we entered further into the house, we got to a room where we found so many corpses. Mothers and children piled on top of each other. One mother was still covering her son. I thought he may have survived but as I turned her over, I saw that he had been also shot."
Other bodies were found piled high in the streets bearing gunshot wounds to the head and chest, the report read.
The Syrian government acknowledged its military operations in al-Bayda and Baniyas but said that its forces had killed only "terrorists."
According to witness accounts provided to Human Rights Watch, the troops who wreaked havoc in al-Bayda and Baniyas were "a mix of regular government troops; members of the National Defense Force, a paramilitary group organized earlier in the year by the government from pro-government militias; and armed pro-government residents of neighboring villages."
Earlier this week, another Human Rights Watch report blamed Syrian government forces for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack.
The U.S.-based rights group said it had reached that conclusion after analyzing witness accounts, remnants of the weapons used and medical records of victims.
HRW said it did not believe the attack could have been carried out by rebels or other “terrorists” as a smokescreen, as suggested by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"Human Rights Watch and arms experts monitoring the use of weaponry in Syria have not documented Syrian opposition forces to be in possession of the 140 mm and 330 mm rockets used in the attack, or their associated launchers," the report added.
The organization urged the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court to ensure accountability for the extrajudicial executions.
Tens of thousands have already lost their lives in the bloody conflict between forces loyal to Assad and those opposed to his rule, forcing more than 2 million people to flee across Syria's borders.
First published September 12 2013, 10:27 PM