Al-Qaeda and other militant Islamist groups fighting the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad killed scores of civilians, including women and children, after a battle in the north-west of the country, Human Rights Watch said in a report published yesterday (Friday).
A researcher from the organisation interviewed survivors of an offensive against villages in Latakia province, inhabited by members of the Alawite sect to which the Assad family belongs, confirming widespread reports of atrocities.
The attack followed regime massacres of hundreds of civilians in two Sunni towns in the same province in May, and was described by the militants' own propaganda outlets in highly vengeful, sectarian terms.
Alawite villagers told how they returned to their homes to find relatives - often those too old or infirm to flee - butchered. "My father stayed in the house," said one man who fled with his mother.
"He was killed in his bed. My aunt, she is an 80-year-old blind woman, was also killed in her room." Hassan Shebli, who lived in the village of Barouda, showed Human Rights Watch the house where his wife, Shamieh Ali Darwish, and son, Safwan Shebli, 23, were killed.
Both were disabled. "You can still see the blood," he said.
The researcher listed names of 190 civilians who died in the attacks, which began on Aug 4. She had clear evidence that 67 had been executed or killed illegally.
The evidence "strongly suggests that the killings, hostage taking, and other abuses committed by the opposition forces on Aug 4 rise to the level of crimes against humanity", the report said.
Negotiations for the release of some 200 civilians still held hostage were continuing, the report said, adding that the attacks had a clear sectarian agenda.
The Human Rights Watch researcher was escorted by regime officials and soldiers who now control the area again, on a trip licensed by the government.
However, the report pointed out that rights group has previously accused the regime of war crimes and said accusations against one side did not vindicate the other.
In a finding with international ramifications, it said funding for the attack on the Alawite villages was raised privately in the Gulf, including from wealthy donors in Kuwait.
The attack was led by mainly jihadist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Jabhat al-Nusra and the "foreign legion" of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, all of which are affiliated to al-Qaeda.
The political opposition in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, said what happened represented not "the true Syrian opposition, but rather a shameful one-time attack by outlier extremist groups".