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UN says Syrian militants conducting mass executions

GENEVA — Extremist Islamic groups in Syria are committing a ‘‘soaring’’ number of executions in the country’s north that could amount to war crimes, the UN human rights office said Thursday.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay says that over the past two weeks her office has received reports of ‘‘a succession of mass executions of civilians and fighters who were no longer participating in hostilities in Aleppo, Idlib and Raqqa by hardline armed opposition groups in Syria, in particular by the’’ al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

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She warned that such executions violate international humanitarian law, and the numbers of such violations are thought to be alarmingly high.

‘‘While exact numbers are difficult to verify, reliable eyewitness testimony that we have gathered suggests that many civilians and fighters in the custody of extremist armed opposition groups have been executed since the beginning of this year,’’ Pillay said in a statement.

Fighting between the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other Islamic groups in northern and eastern Syria has killed hundreds of people over the past two weeks. The infighting is the most serious among opponents of President Bashar Assad since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.

Pilay’s office reported that in the first week of January a number of people were executed in Idlib by armed opposition groups. It said that on Jan. 6 in Aleppo three people reportedly held by the al-Qaida linked group at its base in Makhfar al-Saleheen were found dead, handcuffed, with bullet wounds in their heads.

Two days later, also in Aleppo, ‘‘numerous bodies, again mostly handcuffed and blindfolded, were found in a Children’s Hospital’’ once used as a base by the group, the UN office said, and that at least four local media activists were among the dead, as well as captured fighters from armed opposition groups.

Pillay says there also are ‘‘deeply disturbing reports emerging of mass executions’’ by the al-Qaida linked group, both when it withdrew from Raqqa and after it regained control earlier this week.

‘‘These reports are particularly alarming, given the large numbers of people, including civilians, that armed opposition groups in Syria are believed to be holding in custody,’’ Pillay said. ‘‘The taking of hostages is prohibited under international humanitarian law and may also constitute a war crime.’’

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