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Turkish forces commit war crimes in Syria offensive - fresh evidence

Turkish forces have carried out indiscriminate attacks in north-east Syria © Getty Images

Indiscriminate Turkish airstrikes and mortar attacks on residential areas, a bakery and school kill numerous civilians, including children

Chilling details of grisly murder of Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf

‘Turkish military forces and their allies have displayed an utterly callous disregard for civilian lives’ - Kumi Naidoo

Amid reports that Turkey has agreed to a military ceasefire in northern Syria to let Kurdish forces withdraw, Amnesty International has compiled damning evidence of war crimes committed by Turkish forces and Turkish-backed Syrian armed groups during the offensive.

Amnesty evidence shows how Turkish forces have displayed a shameful disregard for civilian life, including through summary killings and unlawful attacks that have killed and injured civilians.

Amnesty gathered witness testimony between 12 and 16 October from 17 people, including medical and rescue workers, displaced civilians, journalists and humanitarian workers, as well as analysing and verifying video footage, and reviewing medical reports and other documentation. 

The information provides damning evidence of indiscriminate attacks in residential areas - including attacks on a home, a bakery and a school - carried out by Turkey and allied Syrian armed groups. It also reveals gruesome details of a summary killing in cold blood of a prominent Syrian-Kurdish politician, Hevrin Khalaf, by members of Ahrar Al-Sharqiya, part of the Syrian National Army, a coalition of Syrian armed groups equipped and supported by Turkey. 

The Kurdish-led administration’s health authority in northeast Syria said yesterday that at least 218 civilians - including 18 children - had been killed in Syria since the offensive began. According to the Turkish authorities, up to 15 October, 18 civilians have been killed and 150 injured in Turkey as a result of mortar attacks they attribute to Kurdish forces in Syria. If Kurdish forces are firing imprecise explosive weapons into civilian areas in Turkey, this would violate international humanitarian law.

In one of the most horrific attacks in Syria, a Kurdish Red Crescent worker described how he pulled bodies from the wreckage of a Turkish airstrike at around 7am on 12 October, after two munitions landed near a school in Salhiye where civilians displaced by the fighting had sought shelter. He said: 

“Everything happened so fast. In total, there were six injured and four killed, including two children. I couldn’t tell if they were boys or girls because their corpses were black. They looked like charcoal. The other two people killed were older men, they looked older than 50. Honestly, I am still in shock.”

The Red Crescent worker also said that the nearest frontline was nearly a mile away and that there no fighters or military objectives in the vicinity at the time of the attack.

Another Kurdish Red Crescent worker described to Amnesty his attempts to rescue an 11-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl who were injured when mortars landed as they played outside their home near al-Salah mosque in Qamishli. He said that Qamishli had come under heavy indiscriminate attack since 10 October, and residential homes, a bakery and a restaurant had been struck. He said:

“The boy was injured in his chest. The injury was horrible. He had an open wound … and he couldn’t breathe. It looked like shrapnel ripped his chest open.”

The boy later died of his wounds. His sister was also struck by shrapnel in the attack and doctors were forced to amputate part of her leg below the knee. The rescue worker said there were no military bases or checkpoints anywhere in the vicinity. 

In another incident on 13 October, a Turkish airstrike on a market struck a civilian convoy travelling between Qamishli and Ras al-Ain. According to the Kurdish Red Crescent, six civilians, including one journalist, were killed in the incident, and 59 people were injured. A journalist who was present at the scene and witnessed the attack described it as “an absolute massacre”. He said the convoy was made up of around 400 civilian vehicles and that there were no fighters present, only a handful of armed guards protecting the convoy. 

Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said:
“Turkish military forces and their allies have displayed an utterly callous disregard for civilian lives, launching unlawful deadly attacks in residential areas that have killed and injured civilians. 

“Striking a civilian convoy is inexcusable. There is also no justification for indiscriminately shelling civilian areas using imprecise weapons such as mortars. 

“Turkey is responsible for the actions of the Syrian armed groups it supports, arms and directs. So far, Turkey has given these armed groups free rein to commit serious violations in Afrin and elsewhere. 

“We call on Turkey again to end violations, hold perpetrators accountable, and protect civilians living under their control. Turkey cannot evade responsibility by outsourcing war crimes to armed groups.

“Ahrar’s al-Sharqiya’s murder of Hevrin Khalaf and others must be independently investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.”

Thousands displaced as humanitarian fears increase

Local and international aid workers told Amnesty that the US withdrawal from north-east Syria, Turkey’s military offensive and the Syrian government joining the fray was a case of worst-case scenarios happening simultaneously.

There are fears over whether the 100,000 displaced will receive enough food, clean water and medical supplies - and how those in need will continue to access assistance in the longer term. Many of those displaced have nowhere to go and are sleeping out in the open, in gardens and in the streets. 

In the town of Derbassiya, around 90% of the population are people who were displaced from their homes and moved there. One man in Derbassiya, who fled with his family, told Amnesty that around half were staying with relatives in the south and the rest had sought shelter in schools and mosques. Many of the displaced expressed concerns that the security situation would lead to the further evacuation of international staff and that the advance of Syrian government forces could pose risks to local Arab and Kurdish staff, as well as to displaced civilians who had fled other parts of Syria. 

Grisly murder of Kurdish politician

Amnesty also corroborated witness testimony, verified video footage and reviewed a medical report to shed light on how Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish politician and Secretary General of the Future Syria political party, was ambushed on 12 October on the international highway linking Raqqa to Qamishli. She was dragged out of her car, beaten, and shot dead in cold blood by fighters from Ahrar al-Sharqiya. They also summarily killed her bodyguard.

On the same day and at the same location, Ahrar al-Sharqiya fighters also captured and then killed at least two Kurdish fighters. They also abducted two civilian men, both of whom work with a local medical organisation and were transporting medicine at the time they were captured. Family members confirmed to Amnesty that their whereabouts remained unknown. Amnesty verified the time and date of the videos showing that the summary killings and abduction of the two civilians were carried out on the afternoon on 12 October. 

Khalaf’s close friend told Amnesty that when she tried to call Khalaf’s phone, a man who identified himself as a Syrian armed opposition fighter answered, saying - in Arabic - “You Kurds are traitors, all of you in the [PKK] party are operatives”. He also informed her that Khalaf had been killed. 

A medical report seen by Amnesty lists a series of injuries inflicted on Khalaf, including multiple gunshot wounds to the head, face and back, as well as fractures to her legs, face and skull, and detachment of skin from her skull and loss of hair as a result of being dragged by the hair. 

Arms transfers

Amnesty has called on all countries to immediately suspend arms transfers to Turkey and other parties to the conflict in Syria, including Kurdish forces, against whom there are credible allegations of serious violations of international law, of weapons that could be used to commit or facilitate human rights violations. 

The USA is the largest exporter of weapons to Turkey - other suppliers include Italy, Germany, Brazil and India.

Earlier this week, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the UK would not grant further export licences to Turkey for items that might be used in military operations in Syria, a move that Amnesty insisted should also apply to all existing licences.

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