Syrians inspect the site of a suicide attack in Sweida, Syria on Wednesday, July 25, 2018. 

© 2018 SANA via AP

(Beirut) – Islamic State (also known as ISIS) fighters are holding at least 27 people hostage, including at least 16 children, in southern Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. Local residents say that ISIS is holding the hostages in the eastern region of the Sweida desert and hoping to use them as leverage in negotiations with the Syrian government and Russia.

ISIS kidnapped the residents during a July 25, 2018 attack in the Sweida governorate, which is under government control. Earlier in August, ISIS beheaded one hostage, and another died under unclear circumstances. Hostage-taking is a war crime and ISIS should immediately release the hostages.

“For a month now, families of the kidnapped Sweida have been calling for the release of their loved ones,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Civilian lives should not be used as bargaining chips, and ISIS should release all the hostages immediately.”

Human Rights Watch spoke to four witnesses and relatives of those kidnapped from al-Shbeki, one of the villages ISIS attacked. Witnesses and relatives of victims provided the names of at least 27 people kidnapped, and of 57 people killed in the attack. According to local activists, 16 children between ages 7 and 15 were among those kidnapped.

Hostage-taking is defined as detaining people and then threatening to compel a third party to carry out or abstain from specific acts as an explicit or implicit condition for the hostages’ release or safety. It is a war crime.

ISIS killed local men, women, and children during the July 25 attack, which ISIS claimed responsibility for. On July 28, ISIS released images showing kidnapped women and a video of a woman dressed in white, who states that ISIS will only release the hostages if the “[Syrian] military will stop its campaign on Yarmouk… if you don’t meet their demand they will kill us."

The kidnappings took place against the background of a major, multi-pronged attack by ISIS on the same day in various locations in Sweida governorate, during which at least 200 people were killed. Four witnesses from al-Shbeki village told Human Rights Watch that during the July 25 attack on their village, ISIS intentionally targeted civilians, storming homes and killing entire families, and attacking areas where no Syrian government security forces or other military objectives were present, while indiscriminately attacking others.

On August 4, a local media organization reported it had received a video showing Muhannad Abu Ammar, 19, one of those kidnapped, being beheaded. The outlet circulated photos of the beheading online. A relative of Abu Ammar from al-Shbeki who saw the photos confirmed his identity to Human Rights Watch.

On August 9, a second hostage, a woman by the name of Zahya, died in ISIS custody of unknown causes. News outlets reported ISIS had shared photos of the body, attributing her death to illness, and relatives confirmed she had suffered from medical problems, including diabetes and cardiac problems but said they are unsure of her cause of death.

Local sources report that clashes between ISIS and the Syrian government and its allies are ongoing in the governorate. At the same time, local news sources and an affiliate of the Syrian government report that negotiations are taking place to release the hostages in exchange for allowing the ISIS militants to leave the area.

One man who spoke with Human Rights Watch said his mother and sister were kidnapped by ISIS but later escaped. He said they had been abducted from their home and then taken with 30 others to the eastern part of the Sweida desert. He and other men followed the militants to the area to track the remaining hostages but were not able to rescue any of the hostages. The Syrian government and associated militia then started an offensive against ISIS in Sweida desert in order to rescue the hostages.

“When I found out that they took my mother and sister, it made me crazy,” he said. “The dead bodies are one thing but where are our women and children? Why is no one helping us?”

Witnesses who arrived at the scene between an hour to three hours after the attack told Human Rights Watch that ISIS had snipers on rooftops and were shooting residents as they fled or tried to drive the injured to hospitals. They identified the fighters as members of ISIS, because when they entered the city square, they announced their presence as the Caliphate and shouted Allah Akbar [God is Great]. According to the witnesses, the fighters killed the residents using both guns and knives.

One resident, whose family occupies several houses in the village, said he had moved from house to house until he reached his father’s house, where he found the bodies of his father, two brothers, and two male cousins, all adults stacked on top of one another. Based on what he saw, he believes they were executed at close range. He provided their names.

The majority of residents in the area belong to the Druze religion, a religious minority in Syria. Many are members of the National Defence Forces (NDF) – a pro-government militia. Three of them told Human Rights Watch they took up arms against the ISIS militants and had captured and killed many of the fighters.

On July 25, a local news outlet published a video of a public execution of an alleged ISIS fighter. The news outlet said the execution was carried out in the Sweida city center by people affiliated with pro-government militia in retaliation for the attack. On August 7, a second execution was carried out. Local news outlets videotaped and posted the execution, and indicated the executioners were members of the pro-government militias

International human rights law and international humanitarian law prohibit summary and extrajudicial executions of both civilians and combatants. Under the laws of war, deliberately killing civilians and injured, surrendered, or captured soldiers is a war crime.

“Mob justice and revenge are no answer to ISIS atrocities,” said Fakih. “Without a commitment to justice for violations by all sides, it will be difficult to deter more abuses.”