Syrian government 'demolished thousands of homes'

Unverified YouTube footage appears to show the deliberate demolition of homes with explosives in the Syrian capital, Damascus

The Syrian government has been "deliberately and unlawfully" demolishing thousands of homes, a new report by Human Rights Watch says.

Satellite images appear to show large-scale demolitions with explosives and bulldozers in opposition strongholds in Damascus and Hama in 2012 and 2013.

The report says the apparent wanton destruction of civilian property and collective punishment are war crimes.

It comes as government and opposition delegates attend peace talks in Geneva.

On Wednesday, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi admitted he did not expect there to be any substantial progress during the current round of negotiations, which are scheduled to end on Friday.

However, he said the "ice is breaking slowly" between the delegations and that he hoped for more progress at the second round of talks next week.

In a rare symbol of harmony on Thursday morning, both sides reportedly stood together to observe a minute of silence in honour of the more than 100,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011.

'Wiped off the map'

Human Rights Watch's report, Razed to the Ground, documents seven cases of large-scale demolitions which it says took place between July 2012 and July 2013.

Satellite images, online videos and eyewitness reports suggest they were carried out by government forces, it concludes.

The satellite images show seven districts of Damascus and Hama before and after the demolitions.

Analysis

The HRW report documents seven cases of mass demolitions between July 2012 and July 2013 in and around Damascus and at Hama, where the entire Mashaa al-Arbeen district appears to have been totally flattened.

The evidence produced by the report is hard to ignore. But it's not clear whether those were relatively isolated cases in time and location, or whether it is an ongoing process in different places amid massive destruction inflicted by the war itself.

The July 2012 start date could stem from the fact that this month was when the conflict finally engulfed Syria's two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. HRW has called on the UN Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court because of what it terms these "latest additions to a long list of crimes committed by the Syrian government".

That is certainly highly unlikely to happen. Syria is not a signatory to the relevant conventions, and could only be referred by a unanimous vote at the Security Council, where Russia and China have systematically defended Damascus.

In many of the images, buildings - many of them blocks of flats several stories high - have been reduced to rubble.

Homes in the Hama district of Mashaa al-Arbeen are clearly visible in a satellite photograph dated 28 September 2012. In a second image from 13 October, all that remains is a white smudge. Adjacent districts are untouched.

HRW said it had documented the destruction of at least 145 hectares of building land - a total area equivalent to about 200 football pitches.

Thousands of families had lost their homes as a result of these demolitions, it added.

"Wiping entire neighbourhoods off the map is not a legitimate tactic of war," said Ole Solvang, an HRW emergencies researcher. "These unlawful demolitions are the latest additions to a long list of crimes committed by the Syrian government."

He added: "This was collective punishment of communities suspected of supporting the rebellion."

HRW demanded the Syrian government immediately end the demolitions, saying they were in violation of international law, and provide compensation and alternative housing to the victims.

It also urged the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

'Illegal construction'

Government officials told HRW that the demolitions were carried out in order to remove illegally constructed buildings.

Mosaic of video frames shows the destruction of the Tadamon neighbourhood. The Mosque of Ali bin Abi Talib which is visible was left standing but severely damaged. Video taken on 5 November 2012 Human Rights Watch created a mosaic of video frames showing the destruction of the Tadamon, Damascus

However, the New York-based group found that there had been no similar demolitions in pro-government districts.

The demolitions were also supervised by military personnel and often followed fighting in the areas between government and rebel forces, it said.

Several residents also told HRW that they had all the necessary documentation for their homes.

They added that government forces had given little or no warning of the impending demolitions, and that they had not been allowed to remove their belongings.

"No-one should be fooled by the government's claim that it is undertaking urban planning in the middle of a bloody conflict," Mr Solvang said.

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