BEIRUT — Syrian forces have detained and tortured children as young as 13 as the government tries to crush an uprising that began nearly 11 months ago, Human Rights Watch said Friday as fresh clashes erupted between regime troops and rebels in the country's south.
Friday's fighting in Jassem, in the southern province of Daraa, killed at least one soldier and wounded five, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Syrian conflict has grown more militarized in recent months as army defectors joined the uprising against President Bashar Assad and formed a guerrilla force. The insurgency in turn brings a heavier regime assault on areas where the defectors are holed up.
The U.N. estimated in January that at least 5,400 people have been killed in the crackdown, including soldiers who defected and those who refused orders to fire on civilians.
But the U.N. has been unable to update its tally since, because the chaos in the country makes it difficult to cross-check the latest figures.
On Friday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a report in which it said it has documented at least 12 cases of children detained under "inhumane" conditions and tortured, as well as children shot while in their homes or on the street.
"Children have not been spared the horror of Syria's crackdown," said Lois Whitman, children's rights director at Human Rights Watch. "Syrian security forces have killed, arrested, and tortured children in their homes, their schools, or on the streets. In many cases, security forces have targeted children just as they have targeted adults."
The report quoted a 16-year-old boy from the town of Tal Kalakh near the Lebanon border as saying that he was detained for eight months during which he was held in seven different detention centers, as well as the Homs Central Prison.
The boy, whom HRW referred to as Alaa, said that after he was asked in how many protests he participated, they "took me in handcuffs to another cell and cuffed my left hand to the ceiling. They left me hanging there for about seven hours, with about one-and-a-half to two centimeters between me and the floor I was standing on my toes."
In another case, the parents of a 13-year-old boy from the coastal city of Latakia, told HRW that in December security officers arrested him and held him for nine days. According to his parents, he was accused of burning photos of Assad, vandalizing security forces' cars, and inciting other children to protest.
Security officers burned him with cigarettes on his neck and hands, the parents said, and threw boiling water on his body.
An adult former detainee told the rights group that some children were raped while in detention.
Also Friday, activists reported protests across Syria, including the central province of Hama and Homs, the northern region of Idlib, southern towns and villages as well as areas around the capital Damascus.
The Observatory said more than 20,000 marched in the streets of the southern villages of Dael and Nawa where security forces opened fire to disperse the masses. The report could not be independently confirmed.
The LCC and the Observatory said security forces killed at least two people in the Damascus suburb of Rankous.
Many of the protesters commemorated the 1982 Hama massacre.
The assault was ordered by Assad's father and predecessor Hafez Assad, following an armed rebellion by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group in the city.
Amnesty International has estimated that between 10,000 and 25,000 people were killed in the 1982 siege, though conflicting figures exist and the Syrian government has never made an official estimate.
The latest protests and clashes came a day after diplomats failed to reach agreement on a U.N. resolution aimed at ending the bloodshed in Syria, leaving discussions in limbo pending consultations with their home governments.
Envoys said that yet another text is being drawn up for them to send to their capitals for consideration.