A report detailing the atrocities committed in two Syrian towns in early May was released Friday by Human Rights Watch, shedding light on massacres unrelated to the Aug. 21 attack that spurred talk of intervention by the international community.
According to the report, which cites evidence and interviews with witnesses, Syrian government troops and sympathizers executed at least 248 people on May 2 and May 3, 2013, in the neighboring towns of al-Bayda and Baniyas. The mass executions mark some of the worst in Syria’s two-and-a-half-year-old civil war, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives and displaced a third of the country’s population.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that government and pro-government forces “entered homes, separated men from women, rounded up the men of each neighborhood in one spot, and executed them by shooting them at close range” in al-Bayda in May after rebel fighters retreated. The organization reported that at least 23 women and 14 children, including infants, were also executed.
In some cases, entire families were executed by Assad’s troops, the report found. The bodies were often burned, at times by the dozens.
Government troops and armed pro-government sympathizers from neighboring villages carried out the attacks, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. One witness identified the markings on an intruder’s sleeves as Special Forces.
A war crimes report released Wednesday by a U.N. commission showed evidence of at least eight attacks perpetrated by the Assad regime, and at least one by rebel forces in the last year and a half. Nine other attacks are being investigated, though the perpetrator remains unclear.
The mass executions and hospital bombings cited in the U.N. report show an escalation of violence against civilians since the start of the civil war in February 2011.
After repeated calls for Assad to step down from power, President Obama said in the summer of 2012 that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” in the conflict, prompting unspecified U.S. action. Ever since western intelligence confirmed the use of such weapons by the Assad regime on Aug. 21, in an attack that killed nearly 1,500 civilians including more than 400 children, Obama has been lobbying an international coalition to support military strikes. A recent offer by Russia to broker the transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons to international control is under consideration.
“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," Joe Stork, the Middle East Director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
The U.N. report stops short of detailing the Aug. 21 attack. U.S. officials tell NBC News that they expect the lab results of evidence gathered by the U.N. weapons inspections team at the site of the attack to be released as early as Monday.
Asked whether the lab results would show the use of sarin gas in the Aug. 21 attack, a U.S. official told NBC News, “We'd be surprised if it doesn't.”
NBC's Bob Windrem contributed reporting.