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Blood on the floor of a house in al-Taliliya, where ISIS apparently executed at least 15 civilians. © 2014 Human Rights Watch/Wladimir van Wilgenburg

(New York) – Fighters from the extremist Islamist group Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) appear to have executed at least 15 civilians in northern Syria on May 29, 2014. Local residents told Human Rights Watch at least six children were among those killed after ISIS raided the village of al-Taliliya, near Ras al-‘Ayn.

Residents and local officials said the victims were Syrian Arabs who had been displaced from the countryside around the city of Aleppo.

“While everyone is focused on ISIS’s advances in Iraq, they’re also committing atrocities in Syria, including gunning down civilians,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “ISIS flouts the law, executing civilians at will, while Russia and China paralyze UN Security Council action.”

Three residents of al-Taliliya and others from the area told a Human Rights Watch consultant that ISIS fighters had fought in the area on May 28 against Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG. The next day, ISIS entered al-Taliliya and killed at least 15 civilians, the residents said. The Kurdish fighters were not in the village at the time, and there had been no fighting in the village, residents said.

Officials from the YPG and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which controls the Ras al-‘Ayn area, also said that Kurdish and ISIS fighters had clashed in the area on May 28.

Details of the killings on May 29 were difficult to obtain because many al-Taliliya residents were afraid to talk. As of mid-June, ISIS fighters were in the village of al-Rawiya, which is visible from al-Taliliya, with a checkpoint operated by the Kurdish forces in between.

An elderly Syrian Arab woman living in al-Taliliya said she lost family members in the attack:

We are afraid if we talk they will come to our families and kill us. We do not have any connection with any side, not with ISIS or the Kurds. We just work on our land. We want to stay safe on our land. I don’t want to lose my two other sons.

One resident of a nearby village said she heard about the killing in the morning of May 29 from the YPG and went with them to al-Taliliya at about 10 a.m. The woman said she saw the bodies of at least five men and estimated that she saw the bodies of four women and six or seven children, one of them an infant. She described a gruesome scene:

When I got there I saw one old woman screaming and shouting that ISIS had killed her entire family. Her family was killed in the house. I tried to calm her down. She took me inside and showed me her husband and two sons above 18 years old executed with gunshots to their heads or chest. The wife of her son was also executed, but I don’t remember where she was shot.

She also told Human Rights Watch that she saw a man who had been shot in the head and a family in another house who had been killed in their beds: a man, woman, and two young boys. “They were all executed,” she said.

The woman said she heard that there were other bodies in the area but that they could not be retrieved because they were close to ISIS positions.

A member of the local Kurdish police who entered al-Taliliya that morning said he saw the body of a 7-year-old child who had been shot in the head.

A Human Rights Watch consultant who visited al-Taliliya on June 4 inspected two houses that had blood on the floor and bullet holes on the inside walls. The village was empty of most inhabitants but was otherwise intact. Two large graves for the victims were in the nearby village of Mahteleh.

A doctor at the hospital in Ras al-‘Ayn told Human Rights Watch that he saw 16 or 17 bodies brought from al-Taliliya at about noon on May 29. They included four men roughly in their fifties, five or six women, and five or six children, he said. Two injured adult women were also brought to the hospital, the doctor said. One later died from her injuries.

Amnesty International reported the names of 15 civilians who had been killed, including seven children.

Residents and local Kurdish officials gave two possible motives for the attack. One was that ISIS took revenge on the villagers because it suspected them of supporting the YPG. The other was that ISIS thought the village was inhabited by Yezidis, a small predominately Kurdish sect that many Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq perceive to be infidels. Yezidis used to live in al-Taliliya but left when ISIS came to the area about a year ago, the residents and local officials said.

At the time of the attack, al-Taliliya was instead inhabited by displaced Arabs from al-Safira, near Aleppo. “We suffered so much, no food, no nothing,” said the elderly woman whose relatives were killed in the attack. “I lived there, after running away from Safira.”

In recent months, based on media reports, ISIS has also abducted hundreds of Kurdish civilians in Aleppo governorate and executed several Kurdish civilians suspected of belonging to the YPG. One of the latest victims was Mohammad Mohammad, a 26-year-old English teacher from Jib al-Faraj, a village outside Aleppo. Mohammad was shot dead and beheaded on May 23, Kurdish media reported.

ISIS and other extremist Islamist militant groups have repeatedly targeted Yezidis in neighboring Iraq. In May, hundreds of Yezidis fled Rabia, an Iraqi town on the Syrian border, after suspected ISIS militants shot dead six local Yezidi men – two on May 2 and four on May 8. In both cases, the gunmen stopped the men’s cars, pulled them out, and shot them in the head in front of female relatives, a witness to each incident told Human Rights Watch.

“We have lost our loved ones and we have lost our livelihoods,” said a female cousin of Khader Alyas Qassim, 22, one of the Yezidis killed on May 2, who had been displaced from Rabia. “We don’t know how we will make a living. But no way will we go back to Rabia, even if they paid us in gold.”

The UN Security Council should take steps to curb abuses and give a measure of justice to victims, Human Rights Watch said. The measures should include both an arms embargo on groups like ISIS that are credibly found to be carrying out widespread or systematic abuses, and referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

“How long will civilians be made to languish while the Security Council fails to protect civilians from extremist groups or indiscriminate barrel bombs?” Houry said. “The price of delay can be counted in Syrian lives.”

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