BEIRUT: Human Rights Watch said on Sunday that regime forces in Syria have resorted to using civilians as human shields to protect themselves from attacks by rebel fighters.
Citing witnesses and YouTube videos, the watchdog accused the army and Shabiha pro-regime militia of forcing people to march in front of them as they advanced on opposition-controlled towns in northwestern Idlib province.
"By using civilians as human shields, the Syrian army is showing blatant disregard for their safety," HRW emergencies researcher Ole Solvang said in a statement. "The Syrian army should immediately stop this abhorrent practice."
In its statement, the New York-based rights group said that regime forces began using human shields in Idlib at the start of the year after rebels tried to attack the army.
The tactic was reported to have been used in the Idlib towns of Al-Janudyah, Kafr Nabl, Kafr Ruma and Ayn Laruz.
In Kafr Nabl, one resident named only as Abdullah said the army forced him and several other people to walk in front of their armoured personnel carriers during a search and arrest operation on March 2.
"As we were going to Friday prayer, soldiers from a base near the mosque were rounding up people. They took maybe 25 people, including me" and eight children, HRW quoted him as saying.
"They made us march in front and around the military vehicles to some houses where they were searching for wanted opposition activists. They arrested several people from the houses.
"Then they made us march back to their base, after which they released all of us, apart from the detained activists. The whole operation lasted for about two hours," Abdullah said.
Raed Fares, an opposition activist in Kafr Nabl, said the army boosted its presence in the town when protests began seven months ago and started using human shields in January after an attempt attack on them with a roadside bomb.
Human Rights Watch said Fares posted videos on YouTube showing groups of people from the town walking in front of soldiers and armoured vehicles on two separate occasions in February.
The army also used residents to protect its checkpoints.
The watchdog provided several other similar accounts by residents and activists, and said the use of human shields was a violation of international human rights laws.
"The Syrian army's use of human shields is yet another reason why the UN Security Council should refer Syria to the International Criminal Court," Solvang said. "Somebody should be made to answer for these violations."