GENEVA — The Syrian government has likely used chlorine gas to attack civilians while the Islamic State group fighting them has committed crimes against humanity with attacks on civilians in two provinces, an independent U.N. commission said Wednesday.
The report from the commission, which is investigating potential war crimes in Syria, marks the first time the U.N. has assigned blame for the use of the chemical agent. The commission said it now believes government forces loyal to President Bashar Assad unleashed a chemical agent, likely chlorine, on civilians in northern Syrian villages eight times in April.
According to the report, victims and medical workers described symptoms caused by exposure to chemicals and witnesses told of a chlorine-like smell immediately after government helicopters bombed civilian areas in Idlib and Hama provinces eight times between the 11th and 29th of April.
"There are reasonable grounds to believe that the chlorine has been dropped, particularly in barrel bombs from helicopters belonging to the government authorities. So the finger points there," said commission member Vitit Muntarbhorn, a Thai professor who has investigated human rights in North Korea.
The commission also noted the widespread and systematic killings of civilians by Islamic State, which now controls a swath of north and eastern Syria. It said attacks have taken place in the northern province of Aleppo and in the northeastern region of Raqqa, a stronghold of the group. The findings mean U.N. officials now believe Islamic State has committed crimes against humanity in Syria and Iraq, the two countries in which the group has carved out a self-styled caliphate.
"This is a continuation — and a geographic expansion — of the widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population (by IS)," the four-member commission chaired by Brazilian diplomat Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said in the study.
The group's gruesome beheading of American journalist James Foley and its declaration of a state governed by a harsh interpretation of Islamic law across Iraq and Syria have inserted a new dynamic into the international standoff over Syria's civil war.
Pinheiro told reporters one of the most disturbing findings was the large training camps where children, mostly boys 14 and older, are recruited and trained to fight alongside adult Islamic State fighters.
"In Syria, it's total impunity," said commission member Carla del Ponte, a Swiss former war crimes prosecutor. "Crimes are committed each day, from all parties, and nobody's dealing with the criminal responsibility for those crimes."
The report, based on 480 interviews and documentary material, cited dozens of documented public executions in Aleppo and Raqqa during the bloody and complex Syrian civil war that the U.N. says has killed more than 190,000 people since 2011.
Crowds of people including children have reportedly watched as the group's fighters pronounce mostly adult men guilty of violating religious laws and then behead them or shoot them in the head at close range. The purpose, according to the commission, is "to instill terror among the population, ensuring submission to its authority."
Photos posted online Wednesday showed the aftermath of the Islamic State group's takeover of the Tabqa air base in Raqqa province. In one photo, masked gunmen can be seen shooting seven men kneeling in front of them. The photos correspond to other reporting by The Associated Press of the airfield's fall to the extremist militants.
But the commission also emphasized that Assad's government forces continue to perpetrate crimes against humanity through massacres and systematic murder, torture, rape and disappearances. And it said other factions fighting Assad's government are also committing massacres and war crimes.
On Monday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Islamic State fighters reportedly killed up to 670 prisoners in the Iraqi city of Mosul and committed other horrific abuses that amount to crimes against humanity.
Pillay said the Islamic State group and fighters allied with it are daily committing "grave, horrific human rights violations" in Iraq such as targeted killings, abductions, trafficking, slavery and sexual abuse as they push to gain a firm grip on Iraq's northern and eastern provinces.