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Rush to cover up bloodshed in Palestinian camp

Aug. 20, 2011 5:45 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 28, 2011 9:53 A.M.)
By Hannah Patchett and George Hale

BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Syrian forces scrambled Saturday to destroy evidence of last week's bloody crackdown in Latakia that killed dozens of Palestinians and sent refugees fleeing, activists said as UN officials arrived in Damascus.

Security forces were seen scrubbing blood off the streets and walls of al-Ramel refugee camp ahead of the cross-agency mission’s anticipated arrival in the port city, which has been partly evacuated amid the attacks.

The delegation was dispatched from Geneva in response to a damning report to the Security Council on Syrian leader Bashar Assad's "apparent shoot-to-kill" policy. That report had urged an end to excessive use of force and the killing of protestors, torture and ill-treatment of detainees and enforced disappearances.

A European diplomat says the last-minute cleanup in Latakia only confirms existing suspicions and appears timed to coincide with the arrival of UN officials.

It fits "perfectly with the version of events which the regime is denying: that there was an attack on Latakia camp, home to thousands of UN registered Palestinian refugees who were forced to flee as they came under fire," the diplomat told Ma'an.

More than 60 civilians, most of them Palestinians, have died in Latakia since forces launched an offensive last Sunday, activists say. Thousands fled as gunboats were used in the first attack from the sea since the start in March of a pro-democracy revolt that has left some 2,000 civilians dead, according to activists.

Security forces deny using gunboats and say their campaign in Latakia is targeting "armed men" who "opened fire on residents", but witnesses said the assault began after a small group held a peaceful demonstration.

On Saturday, government officials brought Syrian state television crews to one section of Latakia which had been opened to inspection, rights activists told Ma'an. Prior to filming, security forces scrubbed off dried, days-old blood from a street and planted flowers in a bid to present the area as a regular public space.

Assad's "killing machine can wash the blood off the streets but not off its hands," said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for colleagues in Syria.

"The evidence ... is overwhelming and undeniable," he said.

Badil, a Palestinian refugee rights group in the West Bank, called Sunday for “full transparency and accountability for recent events in Latakia camp, in accordance with international law."

"There must be a credible and independent investigation, in line with international standards, into allegations that crimes against humanity have been committed," Badil stated echoing remarks by frustrated diplomats.

But UN officials say the delegation to Syria is not authorized to investigate allegations of serious abuse by the government. The team's only mandate is to evaluate humanitarian conditions and draw up plans for resuming public services in seven of the hardest-hit areas across the country, they say.

On Sunday, exiled Syrian dissident Radwan Ziadeh urged a UN panel to recommend that the Security Council refer the situation in Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

"Leadership and impartiality must be strongly demonstrated with regards to Syria as it was in the case of Libya," said Ziadeh, who told Ma'an the death toll in Latakia stood at 63 a week after operations began.

Ziadeh, a critic of the UN's relatively limited efforts to challenge Assad, proposed an independent commission to hold investigations "into the crimes committed by the Syrian government in recent months."

Inside Latakia, meanwhile, UN officials say about 7,500 residents of the refugee camp have not returned due to fears of new attacks. The UN refugee agency has tracked down 6,000 Palestinians who fled.

Many of those who remain missing have been locked into a sprawling stadium complex known as Latakia Sports City, activists say. As many as 4,000 people, mostly Palestinians, are believed to be held there.

Syrian rights advocate Ammar Abdulhamid says he is waiting to see if the prisoners will be moved from the stadium when the UN delegation arrives "because, right now, it is still full."
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