Human Rights Watch says Syrian government forces are using sexual violence to torture men, women, and boys detained during the country's 15-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
The New York-based rights group Friday released a statement
saying soldiers and pro-government armed militias are also sexually abusing women as well as girls as young as 12 years old. The group based its report on interviews with former detainees who described being sexually abused or witnessing abuses, including rape, beatings and electric shocks.
The group says it documented more than 20 incidents of sexual assault between March 2011 and March 2012, with most of the cases occurring in the opposition stronghold of Homs. But it said the full extent of sexual violence in and outside of Syrian detention facilities is not known.
While Human Rights Watch said it does not have evidence that senior military commanders ordered soldiers to commit the sexual violence, it said no action has been taken to investigate such abuses. Syria's government has not responded to the allegations.
The report comes as activists report a continued surge in violence, which threatens to escalate the country's conflict into an all-out civil war. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that government forces were shelling rebel-held areas and clashing with opposition forces in Homs, Aleppo, Douma and Damascus.
Russia on Friday denied U.S. accusations that Moscow is fueling the violence by supplying Syria with new helicopters. Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Moscow has only carried out repairs of helicopters sent there "many years ago." Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Russia was making new deliveries of helicopters, which activists say are being used to kill civilians.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also denied reports suggesting that Russia, a key ally of Damascus, is discussing plans for a political transformation in Syria that would include the departure of President Assad. Lavrov said such discussions would contradict the position of Russia, which has helped block the U.N. Security Council from taking more serious action against Assad.
With international efforts to mediate an end to the bloody conflict stalled, members of Syria's fractured opposition are meeting in Istanbul on Friday in an attempt to settle their differences and present a unified front.
Opposition leader Ammar al-Qurabi said the aim of the opposition is not necessarily to find a replacement for President Assad, but to find a way to bring democracy to Syria.
"The problem is not about the shape or any umbrella. We discuss paper, we discuss democracy," he said. "The people fight Assad because they hate the dictatorship."
The meeting, which also includes delegates from the U.S., Britain, and France, comes as world powers make tentative plans to hold a meeting in Geneva on June 30 to try to revive a U.N.-backed peace plan that has so far proven unsuccessful.
Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.