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Red Cross declares Syrian conflict to be civil war

By Frank Jordans

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, July 15 2012 12:36 p.m. MDT

In this citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on Saturday, July 14, 2012, Syrians chant slogans during a demonstration in Damascus, Syria. On Sunday Syria denied U.N. claims that government forces used heavy weapons during a military operation that left scores dead.

Shaam News Network, SNN, Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria's 16-month bloodbath crossed an important symbolic threshold Sunday as the international Red Cross formally declared the conflict a civil war, a status with implications for potential war crimes prosecutions.

The Red Cross statement came as U.N. observers gathered new details on what happened in a village where dozens were reported killed in a regime assault. After a second visit to Tremseh on Sunday, the team said Syrian troops went door-to-door in the village, checking residents' IDs and then killing some of them and taking others away.

According to the U.N., the attack appeared targeted at army defectors and activists.

"Pools of blood and brain matter were observed in a number of homes," a U.N. statement said.

On Sunday, Syria denied U.N. claims that government forces had used heavy weapons such as tanks, artillery and helicopters during the attack Thursday in Tremseh.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the violence was not a massacre — as activists and many foreign leaders have said — but a military operation targeting armed fighters who had taken control of the village.

"What happened wasn't an attack on civilians," Makdissi told reporters in Damascus. He said 37 gunmen and two civilians were killed — a far lower death toll than the one put forward by anti-regime activists, some of whom estimated the dead at more than 100.

"What has been said about the use of heavy weapons is baseless," Makdissi added.

The United Nations has implicated President Bashar Assad's forces in the assault. The head of the U.N. observer mission said Friday that monitors stationed near Tremseh saw the army using heavy weaponry and attack helicopters.

The fighting was some of the latest in the uprising against Assad, which activists say has killed more than 17,000 people. Violence continued across the country Sunday, with more clashes reported around the capital, Damascus.

The bloodshed appeared to be escalating. On Sunday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it now considers the Syrian conflict a civil war, meaning international humanitarian law applies throughout the country.

Also known as the rules of war, humanitarian law grants all parties in a conflict the right to use appropriate force to achieve their aims. The Geneva-based group's assessment is an important reference for determining how much and what type of force can be used, and it can form the basis for war crimes prosecutions, especially if civilians are attacked or detained enemies are abused or killed.

"We are now talking about a non-international armed conflict in the country," ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said.

War crimes prosecutions would have been possible even without the Red Cross statement. But Sunday's pronouncement adds weight to any prosecution argument that Syria is in a state of war — a prerequisite for a war crimes case.

Previously, the ICRC had restricted its assessment of the scope of the conflict to the hotspots of Idlib, Homs and Hama, but Hassan said the organization had determined the violence has widened.

"Hostilities have spread to other areas of the country," Hassan told The Associated Press. "International humanitarian law applies to all areas where hostilities are taking place."

Although the armed uprising in Syria began more than a year ago, the ICRC has previously hesitated to call it a civil war — though others, including United Nations officials, have.

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