Wednesday 16 August 2017

Assad is accused of 13,000 secret hangings

Free Syrian Army fighters rest on the outskirts of the Isil-controlled northern Syrian city of al-Bab. Photo: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
Free Syrian Army fighters rest on the outskirts of the Isil-controlled northern Syrian city of al-Bab. Photo: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
President Bashar al-Assad

Raf Sanchez Beirut

The Syrian regime has executed up to 13,000 people in secret mass hangings carried out in the basement of a military prison near Damascus, Amnesty International has said.

A report by the human rights group alleges that Bashar al-Assad's security forces carried out "a calculated campaign of mass hangings and extermination" at Saydnaya, a military prison outside the capital.

"Saydnaya Military Prison is where the Syria state quietly slaughters its own people," the report states. "The victims are overwhelmingly ordinary civilians who are thought to oppose the government."

Prisoners are kept in the "red building" of the hulking three-winged prison until they are taken before a military court in Damascus. There they are sentenced to death in show trials "which last between one and three minutes", according to the report.

Detainees are returned to the prison, blindfolded and transferred to its "white building". In a dark basement room, nooses are put around their necks and they are hanged in groups of between 20 and 50 people, Amnesty said.

"Throughout the process, the victims remain blindfolded," the report states. "They are only told that they have been sentenced to death minutes before the executions are carried out; they are never told when their executions will be carried out."

The bodies are disposed of in mass graves. Medical reports usually give the cause of death as heart or lung failure, according to Amnesty.

Researchers interviewed former prisoners and guards and concluded that between 5,000 and 13,000 people were killed there from September 2011 to December 2015. The killings are believed to be continuing.

Amnesty alleges that the scale of the killing means the hanging programme must have been "authorised by officials at the highest levels of government".

Meanwhile, Syrian government forces advanced on the northern Isil-held city of al-Bab yesterday, cutting off the last supply route that connects it to militant strongholds further east towards Iraq, a monitor said.

Isil militants in the area are now effectively surrounded by the army from the south and by Turkish-backed rebels from the north, as Damascus and Ankara race to capture the largest Isil stronghold in Aleppo province.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, said the army and allied militia made gains south-east of al-Bab overnight, and fought the militants there yesterday.

Backed by airstrikes, they severed a road that links the city to other Isil-held territory in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces, it said.

A military commander in the alliance fighting in support of President Assad said Isil was encircled.

The Syrian army's advance towards al-Bab risks triggering a confrontation with the Turkish military and its allies - rebel groups fighting under the Free Syria Army banner - which have been waging their own campaign to take the city.

In three weeks, Syrian army units moved to within 6km of al-Bab, as Damascus seeks to stop its neighbour, Turkey, penetrating deeper into a strategic area of northern Syria.

"It's clear the regime is in a hurry to reach al-Bab," said Mustafa Sejari, a senior rebel official in the FSA group Liwa al-Mutasem. The Turkish-backed rebels, who have had the city in their sights for months, would fight government forces if they got in the way, he said.

Turkey launched its campaign in Syria, 'Euphrates Shield', in August to secure its frontier from Isil and halt the advance of the powerful Kurdish YPG militia.

North-east of the city, Turkish troops and FSA rebels, backed by Turkish air strikes, clashed with Isil around the town of Bazaa, the Observatory said. Turkish-backed forces had briefly captured the town before suicide bombers pushed them out on Saturday.

Al-Bab is 40km north-east of Aleppo, where the government defeated rebels in December, its most important gain of the nearly six-year-old war.

Northern Syria is one of the most complicated battlefields of the multi-sided Syrian war, with Isil now being fought there by the Syrian army, Turkey and its rebel allies, and an alliance of US-backed Syrian militias.

If a clash does occur, it would be the first time Syrian government forces have confronted the Turkish army on the ground in northern Syria since Turkey launched its operation. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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