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Assad forces step up attacks on markets, hospitals: rights group

world Updated: Sep 19, 2012 07:50 IST

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Syrian government forces are stepping up attacks on markets, hospitals and bread queues, increasing civilian deaths in the country's worsening conflict, rights group, Amnesty International, said on Tuesday.

The "random" air and artillery strikes indicate that President Bashar al-Assad's government is now seeking to "punish" towns under opposition control, Amnesty said in a new report on the Syrian civil war.

The rights group said its investigators had found hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured in recent weeks "in the street, while running for cover or trying to shelter from the bombings."

Amnesty investigators looked into attacks which caused the deaths of 166 civilians, including 48 children and 20 women, in 26 towns and villages in the Idlib, Jabal al-Zawiya and Hama regions.

"Government forces now routinely bomb and shell towns and villages using battlefield weapons which cannot be aimed at specific targets, knowing that the victims of such indiscriminate attacks are almost always civilians," said Donatella Rovera, an Amnesty expert who recently returned from northern Syria.

On Sunday, eight civilians, five of them children, were killed and many more injured in air strikes in Kafr Awayed in Jabal al-Zawiya, said the report.

Seven victims were killed at a wedding party and in nearby houses, and a six-year-old boy was killed while buying bread, Amnesty quoted residents as saying.

The report listed a host of other "indiscriminate" attacks in the three regions, some against hospitals.

It said 35 civilians were killed in two air attacks on the village of Kafr Anbel on August 22 and 28. Twenty-two civilians were killed when the market square was bombed in the second strike.

A mother of nine, Fathiya al-Sheikh, and a father of six, Fuad al-Ahmad, were killed as they shopped for food in the square, which was known for weekly anti-government demonstrations, Amnesty said.

"Attacks such as the one in the market in Kafr Anbel, and repeated strikes near hospitals shortly after the hospitals receive large numbers of casualties, have raised suspicions that these areas might have been targeted because of the large numbers of people gathered there," the report said.

"The random nature of the strikes, which did not target fighters or military objectives, suggests that the aim of such strikes may be to punish residents of towns and villages which are now under the de-facto control of opposition forces."

Amnesty said this would be a breach of international humanitarian law and added to calls for the UN Security Council to refer the conflict to the International Criminal Court.

The 15-nation Security Council is bitterly divided however on the 18-month old conflict, which Syrian activists say has left more than 27,000 dead. It has not been able to agree any international action on the civil war.

Among permanent members of the council, Britain, France and the United States have called for sanctions against Assad and a possible ICC investigation. Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions which could have led to sanctions.