13th June, 2012
DAMASCUS: The United Nations on Tuesday accused Syrian troops of using children as “human shields,” as UN chief Ban Ki-moon demanded access to the town of Al-Heffa amid fears of a new “massacre” by regime forces.
Branding Damascus as one of the worst offenders on its annual “list of shame” of conflict countries, the UN said in a report that Syrian children as young as nine had been victims of killing and maiming, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and ill-treatment, including sexual violence.
“Rarely, have I seen such brutality against children as in Syria, where girls and boys are detained, tortured, executed, and used as human shields,” Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN special representative for children in armed conflict, told AFP before releasing the report.
Ban said in a statement meanwhile that “intensive military operations” by government forces against the central province of Homs and firing from helicopters on other towns had caused heavy civilian casualties.
Residents and activists say government helicopter gunships have strafed rebel positions in Al-Heffa, a town of 30,000 near the border with Turkey, and tanks were parked on the outskirts.
The UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) said it had received reports of “a large number of civilians, including women and children trapped inside the town and are trying to mediate their evacuation.”
One Syrian activist broke down in tears as she told AFP via Skype that tanks were parked on the edge of Al-Heffa.
“They have never come this close before,” Sem Nassar said, adding: “There’s only one doctor working to treat the wounded in the town,” and that most residents had fled.
Ban joined UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan in demanding that unarmed military observers from UNSMIS be let into Al-Heffa.
Such reports prompted Washington to voice concerns Assad’s regime is planning to carry out new atrocities, after the massacre of 55 people last week in Al-Kubeir and at least 108 near Houla on May 25-26.
“The United States joins joint special envoy Kofi Annan in expressing deep alarm by reports from inside Syria that the regime may be organising another massacre,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Nuland said the tactics showed the Assad regime, cracking down on the most severe threat to his family’s four-decade rule, was “increasingly desperate.”
Human rights groups estimate that about 1,200 children have died during the 15-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, whose brutal crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired protests has been widely condemned.
The UN report said that Syrian government forces rounded up dozens of boys aged eight to 13 before an attack on the village of Ain al-Arouz in Idlib province on March 9.