Ex-FARC commanders accept Colombia war crimes accusations

By Oliver Griffin

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Former commanders from Colombia’s demobilized FARC guerrillas on Thursday accepted accusations by a transitional justice court that they committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the group’s 50-year war with the state.

The ruling in January by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), created under the 2016 peace deal between the government and the rebels, was the first time the JEP attributed criminal responsibility for hostage-taking to former leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The former commanders were also accused of other war crimes connected with the treatment of kidnap victims, including murder and torture, among others.

“We recognize that during (the conflict) actions and conduct punishable in the eyes of international humanitarian law took place. Actions and conducts that have been individually and collectively recognized by the JEP, society in general, and in activities with victims,” a statement signed by six of the former rebel commanders and published on Twitter said.

The FARC used kidnappings for ransom to fund their war, while captured military or government personnel were used to pressure authorities into releasing jailed rebels, the JEP said last month.

By accepting the accusations, the former commanders could face restrictions on their freedoms for five to eight years.

If they had rejected them, the commanders would have faced up to 20 years in prison, per the terms of the peace deal.

The signatories were former top leader Rodrigo Londono – known best by his nom de guerre Timochenko – Jaime Alberto Parra, Pablo Catatumbo, Pastor Alape, Julian Gallo and Rodrigo Grande.

The JEP can also prosecute military leaders for allegations of war crimes, in addition to the cases it handles related to former FARC members.

Colombia’s conflict, which also includes former right-wing paramilitaries and drug cartels, has killed 260,000 people and displaced millions.

(Reporting by Oliver Griffin; editing by Grant McCool)

Russia, Turkey may have committed war crimes in Syria, U.N. says

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Russia killed civilians in air strikes in Syria last year while rebels allied to Turkey carried out murder and pillage in Kurdish areas, U.N. investigators said on Monday – actions it said could amount to war crimes by both Moscow and Ankara.

A report by a U.N. commission found that Russia – the Syrian government’s main ally against rebels and militants – conducted air strikes on a popular market and a camp for displaced people that killed dozens of civilians in July and August.

“In both incidents, the Russian Air Force did not direct the attacks at a specific military objective, amounting to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas,” the report said.

It also described abuses by rebels allied to Turkey during an assault on Kurdish-held areas, and said that if the rebels were acting under the control of Turkish military forces, those commanders may be liable for war crimes.

Paulo Pinheiro, the commission’s chairman, said it had added names linked to the latest crimes to its confidential list of suspected perpetrators. It has received 200 requests from judicial authorities worldwide for information on crimes committed during Syria’s nine-year war, he told a news briefing.

In the report, which covered the period from July 2019 to February 2020, investigators denounced “deliberate” attacks by the Syrian government and allied forces on protected civilian sites, including hospitals and schools.

“There is a war crime of intentionally terrorizing a population to force it to move. We are seeing that picture emerging very clearly for example in Idlib where, because these places are being bombed, people are having to move out,” said panel member Hanny Megally.

Russian-backed Syrian government forces have thrust deep into Idlib province in the far northwest in a campaign to retake the last country’s significant rebel pocket. The onslaught has forced around one million civilians to flee.

Up to 10 children have died from the cold in the last weeks due to living in the open at the Turkish border, Megally said.

The U.N. report blamed Russia for an air strike in the city of Maarat al-Numan on July 22 when at least 43 civilians were killed. Two residential buildings and 25 shops were destroyed after at least two Russian planes left Hmeimim air base and circled the area, it said.

Weeks later, an attack on the Haas compound for displaced killed at least 20 people, including eight women and six children, and injured 40 others, the report said.

It also called on Turkey to investigate whether it was responsible for an air strike on a civilian convoy near Ras al Ain that killed 11 people last October. Turkey has denied a role in the strike, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said was conducted by Turkish aircraft.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. accuses Syrian government of chemical weapon attack in May in Idlib

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, U.S. September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that the United States had concluded the government of President Bashir al-Assad in Syria had used chlorine as a chemical weapon in an attack in May during a battle with insurgents in Idlib.

“The Assad regime is responsible for innumerable atrocities some of which rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Pompeo told a news conference in New York, where he has been attending the United Nations General Assembly.

“Today I am announcing that the United States has concluded that the Assad regime used chlorine as a chemical weapon on May 19,” Pompeo said.

The United States said in May it had received numerous reports that appeared consistent with chemical exposure after an attack by Syrian government forces in northwest Syria, but it had made no definitive conclusion as to whether they used chemical weapons.

The Trump administration has twice bombed Syria over Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons, in April 2017 and April 2018.

The United States, Britain and France launched airstrikes in April 2018 against what they described as three Syrian chemical weapons targets in retaliation for a suspected gas attack that killed scores of people in a Damascus suburb earlier that month.

Assad launched an offensive at the end of April this year on Idlib and parts of adjacent provinces, saying insurgents had broken a truce.

“This is different in some sense because it was chlorine… but know that President Trump has been pretty vigorous in protecting the world from the use of chemical weapons,” Pompeo said, said declining to say what the U.S. response could be.

Pompeo said Washington had also added sanctions on two Russian entities for providing fuel to the Syrian government. Russia supports Assad in the more than eight-year-long Syrian war.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by John Irish; editing by Grant McCool)

Syria must account for thousands of detainees who died in custody: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: A boy carries his belongings at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's al-Fardous district, Syria April 2, 2015. REUTERS/Rami Zayat/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – U.N. war crimes investigators called on Syria on Wednesday to tell families what happened to their relatives who disappeared and provide the medical records and remains of those who died or were executed in custody.

No progress can be made towards a lasting peace to end the nearly eight-year-old war without justice, the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said.

After years of government silence, Syrian authorities this year released “thousands or tens of thousands” of names of detainees alleged to have died, mostly between 2011 and 2014, it said in a report released before delivery to the U.N. Security Council.

“Most custodial deaths are thought to have occurred in places of detention run by Syrian intelligence or military agencies. The Commission has not documented any instance, however, where bodies or personal belongings of the deceased were returned,” it said.

In nearly every case, death certificates for prisoners that were provided to families recorded the cause of death as a “heart attack” or “stroke”, the independent panel led by Paulo Pinheiro said.

“Some individuals from the same geographic area share common death dates, possibly indicating group executions,” it said.

FILE PHOTO: Syria's president Bashar al-Assad (C) joins Syrian army soldiers for Iftar in the farms of Marj al-Sultan village, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria in this handout picture provided by SANA on June 26, 2016./File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad (C) joins Syrian army soldiers for Iftar in the farms of Marj al-Sultan village, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria in this handout picture provided by SANA on June 26, 2016,./File Photo

In most cases, the place of death was stated as Tishreen military hospital or Mujtahid hospital, both near Damascus, but the place of detention was not named, it said.

“Pro-government forces and primarily the Syrian state should reveal publicly the fates of those detained, disappeared and/or missing without delay,” the report said, noting this meant Syrian government forces, Russian forces and affiliated militia.

Families had the right to know the truth about their loved one’s deaths and be able to retrieve their remains, it said.

In a 2016 report, the panel found that the scale of deaths in prisons indicated that the government of President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for “extermination as a crime against humanity”.

In Syria, a family member must register a death within a month after receiving a death notification, the report said. Failure to do so results in a fine which grows after a year.

But given that there are millions of Syrian refugees abroad and internally displaced, many are not in a position to meet deadlines, it said.

The lack of an official death certificate may affect the housing, land and property rights of relatives, it said, noting that female-headed households may face further challenges to secure inheritance rights.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by William Maclean)

U.N. tallies more than 8,000 Afghan civilian casualties so far this year

FILE PHOTO: Afghan security forces inspect the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan September 9, 2018.REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

KABUL (Reuters) – At least 8,050 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of 2018, almost half of them targeted by suicide bomb attacks and other improvised devices that may amount to war crimes, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

The number of casualties was roughly in line with the same period a year earlier, when there were 8,084 casualties, with deaths this year rising five percent to 2,798 and injuries falling three percent to 5,252, the report from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said.

“As there can be no military solution to the fighting in Afghanistan, the United Nations renews its call for an immediate and peaceful settlement to the conflict,” said Tadamichi Yamamoto, the top UN official in Afghanistan.

Seventeen years after U.S. forces led a campaign to overthrow the Taliban following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the figures underline how dire the security situation remains.

While the figures show little change in the overall trend of violence, the UN highlighted the indiscriminate use of suicide and IED attacks, which killed 1,065 civilians and wounded 2,569 in the first nine months, a total of 3,634 casualties, compared with 3,007 casualties in the same period of 2017.

“UNAMA recalls that attacks deliberately targeting civilians and the murder of civilians are serious violations of international humanitarian law that amount to war crimes,” it said in the report.

With parliamentary elections due on Oct. 20, security officials warn that attacks are likely to pick up on polling stations and other election sites, many of which are located in schools, mosques or health clinics.

A wave of suicide attacks in the eastern province of Nangarhar and in the capital Kabul this year has hit students preparing for exams, spectators at sporting events, people waiting to register for elections as well as Shi’ite mosques.

The mainly Shi’ite Hazara minority has been especially heavily targeted by attacks claimed by the local affiliate of Islamic State.

The report attributed 65 percent of casualties to the Taliban, Islamic State and other anti-government forces.

As casualties from suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices rose, casualties from ground fighting fell by 18 percent to 2,311 (605 deaths and 1,706 injured). At the same time, there was a 39 percent rise in the number of casualties from air strikes, which have risen as air operations have been ramped up, to 649 (313 deaths and 336 injured).

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Human Rights Watch: Turkey-backed forces seizing property in Syria’s Afrin

Men walk through debris in the center of Afrin, Syria March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey-backed rebels in northwest Syria’s Afrin have seized, looted and destroyed Kurdish civilians’ property after taking control of the region in March, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.

Turkey’s military and its Syrian rebel allies launched a cross-border operation into Syria earlier this year and drove fighters from the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia out of the town of Afrin and the surrounding area.

Ankara sees the YPG as a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency on Turkish soil. Turkey has threatened to drive the YPG from the entire length of its border.

The United Nations said 137,000 people were displaced by the Afrin offensive, another large population movement in the seven-year long Syrian conflict which has forced more than half of the country’s pre-war population from their homes.

Rights group HRW interviewed people who had been displaced from Afrin. They accuse Turkey-backed forces of moving their fighters and people from other parts of Syria into vacated homes and of taking over business premises without paying compensation.

One interviewee, Roni Seydo, left Afrin in March but was told by a friend that an armed group had taken over his house, painting the word “seized” on the outside wall.

He said his neighbors were questioned about his family and it possible links with the PKK.

Another former Afrin resident, photographer Ser Hussein, said one of his two studios was burned down and the other turned into a butchers shop.

“Those who made the decision to take over Afrin also took on the responsibility of ensuring that both the residents of Afrin, and people there who have been displaced elsewhere have basic shelter in a way that doesn’t infringe on either of those groups’ rights,” HRW’s acting emergencies director Priyanka Motaparthy said in a report.

“So far it seems that they are failing to do the right thing by either group.”

Under the laws of war, pillaging, or forcibly taking private property for personal use is prohibited and can constitute a war crime, HRW said. The laws of war also prohibit destruction of property not justified by military necessity.

HRW said owners should be compensated for the use and damage of their property and the rights of rights of owners and returnees should be guaranteed.

Reuters was not immediately able to reach the rebel groups for comment.

HRW said the Free Syrian Army rebel umbrella group issued a statement on March 9 inviting Afrin residents to submit complaints to the military headquarters in Azaz to claim their looted property.

HRW also said rebel faction Ahrar al-Sharqiyah issued a statement on April 20 denying responsibility for property violations and looting and saying it had arrested several people who may have been involved in such acts.

Turkish officials in March said they were looking into allegations of looting and property seizure and that they would ensure Afrin would be a safe place for residents to return to.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Toby Chopra)

U.N. team to collect evidence of Islamic State crimes in Iraq

The United Nations Security Council meets to discuss adopting a resolution to help preserve evidence of Islamic State crimes in Iraq, during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017.

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United Nations Security Council on Thursday approved the creation of a U.N. investigative team to collect, preserve and store evidence in Iraq of acts by Islamic State that may be war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.

The 15-member council unanimously adopted a British-drafted resolution, after months of negotiations with Iraq, that asks Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to establish a team “to support domestic efforts” to hold the militants accountable.

Use of the evidence collected by the team in other venues, such as international courts, would “be determined in agreement with the Government of Iraq on a case by case basis.”

U.N. experts said in June last year that Islamic State was committing genocide against the Yazidis in Syria and Iraq to destroy the minority religious community through killings, sexual slavery and other crimes.

International human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and Nadia Murad, a young Yazidi woman who was enslaved and raped by Islamic State fighters in Mosul, have long pushed Iraq to allow U.N. investigators to help.

Activist Amal Clooney (R) attends a United Nations Security Council meeting set to adopt a resolution to help preserve evidence of Islamic State crimes in Iraq, during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan

Activist Amal Clooney (R) attends a United Nations Security Council meeting set to adopt a resolution to help preserve evidence of Islamic State crimes in Iraq, during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid

The Security Council met during the annual gathering of world leaders for the U.N. General Assembly.

Iraq’s foreign minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari officially requested international help in a letter to the Security Council last month. The council could have established an inquiry without Iraq’s consent, but Britain wanted Iraq’s approval.

Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate effectively collapsed in July, when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces completed the recapture of Mosul, the militants’ capital in northern Iraq, after a nine-month campaign.

 

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)

 

Syria investigator del Ponte signs off with a sting

Carla del Ponte, member of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic attends a news conference into events in Aleppo at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 1, 2017.

GENEVA (Reuters) – Veteran prosecutor Carla del Ponte signed off from the United Nations Syria investigation on Monday by criticizing the U.N. Security Council and telling Syria’s ambassador his government had used chemical weapons.

The former Swiss attorney general, who went on to prosecute war crimes in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, said in August she was resigning from the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria because of a lack of political backing.

Bidding farewell to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which set up the Commission of Inquiry six years ago, Del Ponte said she had quit out of frustration.

“We could not obtain from the international community and the Security Council a resolution putting in place a tribunal, an ad hoc tribunal for all the crimes that are committed in Syria,” she said.

“Seven years of crime in Syria and total impunity. That is not acceptable.”

Del Ponte told a Swiss newspaper last month enough evidence existed to convict President Bashar al-Assad of war crimes.

Her departure leaves only two remaining commissioners of the inquiry, Karen Koning AbuZayd and the chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, who said that eventually, a great many people would have to answer “as to why they did not act sooner to stop the carnage”.

“The deadlock at the Security Council on Syria is reprehensible and, at times, bewildering,” he told the Human Rights Council.

Leaving the council, del Ponte told Syria’s ambassador that she had been right to quickly reach the conclusion that Assad’s government had used chemical weapons during an attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April.

“It was me, mister ambassador,” she said.

“I said that in my opinion and based on the elements we already had, the Syrian government was responsible. Today we have the confirmation after an official commission’s inquiry. So now, we ask for justice, we ask justice for those victims.”

 

(Reporting by Tom Miles and Cecile Mantovani; editing by Andrew Roche)

 

Syrian government forces used chemical weapons more than two dozen times: U.N.

Catherine Marchi-Uhel of France, newly-appointed head of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) attends a news conference on Syria crimes at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Syrian forces have used chemical weapons more than two dozen times during the country’s civil war, including in April’s deadly attack on Khan Sheikhoun, U.N. war crimes investigators said on Wednesday.

A government warplane dropped sarin on the town in Idlib province, killing more than 80 civilians, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria said, in the most conclusive findings to date from investigations into chemical weapons attacks during the conflict.

The Commission also said U.S. air strikes on a mosque in the village of Al-Jina in rural Aleppo in March that killed 38 people, including children, failed to take precautions in violation of international law.

The weapons used on Khan Sheikhoun were previously identified as containing sarin, an odourless nerve agent. But that conclusion, reached by a fact-finding mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), did not say who was responsible.

“Government forces continued the pattern of using chemical weapons against civilians in opposition-held areas. In the gravest incident, the Syrian air force used sarin in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, killing dozens, the majority of whom were women and children,” the U.N. report said, declaring the attack a war crime.

In their 14th report since 2011, U.N. investigators said they had in all documented 33 chemical weapons attacks to date.

Twenty seven were by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, including seven between March 1 to July 7. Perpetrators had not been identified yet in six early attacks, they said.

The Assad government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons. It said its strikes in Khan Sheikhoun hit a weapons depot belonging to rebel forces, a claim dismissed by the U.N. investigators.

That attack led U.S. President Donald Trump to launch the first U.S. air strikes on a Syrian air base.

A separate joint inquiry by the U.N. and OPCW aims to report by October on who was to blame for Khan Sheikhoun.

The U.N. investigators interviewed 43 witnesses, victims, and first responders linked to the attack. Satellite imagery, photos of bomb remnants and early warning reports were used.

‘GRAVELY CONCERNED’ ABOUT COALITION STRIKES

The independent investigators, led by Paulo Pinheiro, also said they were “gravely concerned about the impact of international coalition strikes on civilians”.

“In al-Jina, Aleppo, forces of the United States of America failed to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and civilian objects when attacking a mosque, in violation of international humanitarian law,” the report said.

A U.S. military investigator said in June that the air strike was a valid and legal attack on a meeting of al Qaeda fighters. It was believed to have killed about two dozen men attending the group’s meeting and caused just one civilian casualty.

The American F-15s hit the building adjacent to the prayer hall with 10 bombs, followed by a Reaper drone that fired two Hellfire missiles at people fleeing, the U.N. report said.

“Most of the residents of al-Jina, relatives of victims and first responders interviewed by the Commission stated on that on the evening in question, a religious gathering was being hosted in the mosque’s service building. This was a regular occurrence.”

“The United States targeting team lacked an understanding of the actual target, including that it was part of a mosque where worshippers gathered to pray every Thursday,” it said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by John Stonestreet)

Australian military probes ‘rumors’ of possible war crimes in Afghanistan

FILE PHOTO: The rear gunner of an Australian Chinook transport chopper mans a heavy machine gun during a low flight over the Arghandab valley in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, May 3, 2010. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

cThe Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported in July on an alleged cover-up of the killing of an Afghan boy as well as hundreds of pages of leaked defense force documents relating to the secretive operations of the country’s special forces.

On Friday, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force released a statement saying it was conducting an inquiry “into rumors of possible breaches of the Laws of Armed Conflict” by Australian troops in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.

“The inquiry would like anyone who has information regarding possible breaches of the Laws of Armed Conflict by Australian forces in Afghanistan, or rumors of them, to contact the inquiry,” the statement read.

Australia is not a member of NATO but is a staunch U.S. ally and has had troops in Afghanistan since 2002.

As recently as May, Australia recommitted to the 16-year-long, seemingly intractable war against the Taliban and other Islamist militants by sending an additional 30 troops to Afghanistan to join the NATO-led training and assistance mission.

That brought Australia’s total Afghan deployment to 300 troops.

(Reporting by Joseph Hinchliffe; Editing by Nick Macfie)