BEIRUT (AP) — Children in Syria have been tortured, maimed and sexually abused by President Bashar Assad's forces and recruited for combat by the rebels fighting to topple him, according to a new United Nations report.
The report highlights what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon termed the "unspeakable suffering" experienced by children in the country's nearly 3-year-old conflict.
Meanwhile, the Syrian government missed another deadline for destroying its chemical weapons Wednesday, but pledged to meet a final deadline of June 30.
Under a timetable set up by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Syria was to have given up its entire stockpile of chemical weapons by Wednesday. Last week, a U.S. diplomat said Syria had only removed 4 percent of its most deadly chemicals so far. All should have been removed by Dec. 31 under the framework.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad rejected U.S. criticism for its slow pace in moving the chemicals out of the country, calling the accusations "baseless and unfair."
Speaking in an interview with Syrian TV late Tuesday, he claimed the U.S. was to blame for the delay, because it was still supporting "terrorists" in Syria who were hindering the safe transport of the chemicals to the port of Latakia for removal out of the country. He said Syria is still cooperating and plans to meet the June 30 deadline.
Syria's conflict was sparked by the detention and torture of schoolchildren who spray-painted anti-government graffiti in a southern city in 2011. It began as largely peaceful protests, but after a government crackdown it evolved into a bloody civil war that has killed more than 130,000 people, according to activists. Millions of Syrians have been driven from their homes, seeking shelter in neighboring countries or in safer parts of their homeland.
The conflict has hit the country's children hard.
The report, covering the period from March 2011 to November 2013, lists a litany of horrors that Syria's children have suffered during the conflict.
The U.N. said government forces have been responsible for the arrest, arbitrary detention, ill treatment and torture of children. Children as young as 11 have been detained by the authorities on suspicion of having links with armed groups.
Children in government custody have reportedly suffered beatings with metal cables, whips and wooden and metal batons, electric shock and sexual violence, including rape or threats of rape, mock executions, cigarette burns, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement, the report said.
It was not clear what methodology was used and the summary of the report posted on the U.N. website late Tuesday did not say how investigators obtained their information.
Allegations of sexual violence by opposition groups were also received, but the UN was unable to further investigate them due to lack of access to areas in under rebel control, the report says.
While Assad's forces have used children as human shields in the fighting, the report also blasted rebels for "recruitment and use of children both in combat and support roles, as well as for conducting military operations."
During the first two years of the conflict, most killings and maiming of children were attributed to government forces, the U.N. report said. During 2013, the opposition forces have increasingly "engaged in such acts," the report said.
"Armed opposition groups also engaged in the summary execution of children," the report said. It said U.N. investigators have not been able to reach many of the rebel-held areas for lack of security there, and consequently have been unable to further investigate and document those violations.
The summary did not mention any specific incidents, but some of the most notorious massacres in the war have had children among the victims.
A May 2012 assault on Houla — a cluster of Sunni villages surrounded by Alawite towns in central Syria — killed about 100 people, including many children under the age of 10. Gruesome video showed rows of dead children with gaping head wounds in a mosque, and the U.N. called it a massacre by pro-Assad gunmen. In a massacre blamed on rebels, nearly 200 civilians were killed in pro-regime villages in Latakia province.
Government aerial and artillery bombardment of opposition-held areas regularly leaves scores dead, including children. Rebels for their part have fired mortars into the capital, Damascus, often hitting civilians including children.
Associated Press writer Toby Sterling contributed to this report from the Netherlands.