Villagers 'forced into human shield for Assad's soldiers'

Syrian regime accused of abusing civilians as Russia backs Annan's plan to end bloodshed
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The Syrian regime was accused yesterday of using civilians as human shields, as the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, pledged his nation's full support for Kofi Annan's plan to end the turmoil in the country.

The Russian leader said the former UN chief's proposal could be the "last chance" to avoid a long and bloody civil war.

He spoke as details emerged of the way Syrian forces have allegedly used civilians to shield troops advancing on rebel towns. Ghalib, an activist from a village in Idlib province, told The Independent how he had watched with binoculars from a hillside as President Bashar al Assad's forces rolled in earlier this month to wrest control from the Free Syrian Army.

He described a group of about 20 civilians, some elderly, some as young as seven or eight years old, being marched with their heads bowed along the dusty road into the Syrian village of Al-Janoudyah earlier this month. Behind them came uniformed gun-toting soldiers, and then a convoy of tanks.

"They used the people like a wall in front of the tanks," Ghalib told The Independent. "There are a few houses that circle my village, and when Assad's army came in they knocked on the doors and took the people in those houses – women, men, children – and made them walk in front."

The practice of using civilians as human shields, to protect troops and to make them take the first deadly steps on to any roadside bombs, has been commonplace in certain towns in the restive province as the government has sought to restore its authority in recent weeks, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Ahmed, a resident of the agricultural town of Kafr Nabl, told HRW that he was forced to walk in front of armoured personnel carriers as they searched for opposition activists. "They took maybe 25 people. There were also eight children," he said. "They were insulting us the whole time."

With reporters denied access to the country, reports are difficult to verify, but several videos posted online appear to show the army using such tactics.

"Putting civilians at risk in this way is a clear violation of international human rights law," said Ole Solvang, a HRW researcher who helped compile the report.

Meanwhile, following a meeting with Mr Annan in Moscow, Mr Medvedev pledged "full support at any level" for his mission to end a conflict that has claimed an estimated 8,000 lives, although some analysts questioned whether there had been any genuine change in Moscow's position towards its long-standing ally.

The former UN Secretary General is pushing a six-point peace plan which demands an immediate cease-fire and access for humanitarian aid.

"This may be the last chance for Syria to avoid a protracted and bloody civil war," Mr Medvedev said.

Russia, along with China, has already supported a UN statement backing Mr Annan's mission, a move that some had hoped was an indication of a softening stance from Syria's veto-wielding allies on the UN Security Council. However, on Friday the two countries voted against a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning "sharply escalating" violations by Syrian forces.

Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, dismissed Russia's pledge yesterday as "theatrics" that merely bought time for Damascus. "Short of intervention the Russians have done everything they can to support Assad," he said. "I'm very sceptical that their position has changed. The Annan plan does not call for Assad to devolve power and if anything it gives him the time and space to continue his repression."

President Assad has said he cannot consider a cease-fire while the country is under attack from "terrorist" gangs, which the government claims have killed more than 3,000 security forces.

The diplomatic efforts by Mr Annan, who will now travel to China to shore up support, came as activists reported heavy shelling and mortar fire in the Old City, Khalidya and Hamidiya districts of Homs. One activist described thick black smoke across the city's skyline and that "everything's shaking". Another said it was the worst shelling he had seen in the central city, reporting nine dead.

There were also reports of clashes between army defectors and troops in the city of Nawa in the southern Deraa province, and a dawn attack by rebels on a military base near Damascus. In the northern city of Aazaz, near the Turkish border, at least two people were reportedly killed by rocket fire as Syrian helicopters flew overhead.