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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Syrian Rebel Reportedly Defends Sinking Teeth Into Dead Soldier\'s Flesh on Camera

A man identified as Khalid al-Hamad, a rebel commander who uses the nom de guerre Abu Sakkar, appeared in a battlefield video posted on YouTube in April. A man identified as Khalid al-Hamad, a rebel commander who uses the nom de guerre Abu Sakkar, appeared in a battlefield video posted on YouTube in April.

A Syrian rebel commander who appeared to bite into the flesh of a government soldier's corpse in a horrifying video clip posted on YouTube this week defended his actions in an interview with Time magazine on Tuesday. The rebel, Khalid al-Hamad, known by the nom de guerre Abu Sakkar, confirmed that he sank his teeth into an internal organ that he had laboriously carved out of the dead soldier's chest as a colleague recorded the scene. “Our slogan,” he said, “is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

As The Lede reported on Monday, the extremely graphic, distressing video has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube since it was uploaded by supporters of President Bashar al-Assad who called it evidence that the war in Syria is a fight against sectarian extremists from the Sunni sect of Islam.

Speaking to Time's Middle East bureau chief, Aryn Baker, by Skype, Abu Sakkar, a Sunni, said that the atrocity was prompted by video footage on the dead soldier's phone that showed the man torturing and sexually abusing three naked women before he was killed. Abu Sakkar also blamed the broader descent into brutality on fighters from Syria's Alawite religious minority, to which the president belongs. “You are not seeing what we are seeing and you are not living what we are living,” he said. “Where are my brothers, my friends, the girls of my neighborhood who were raped?”

Referring to the pummeling of a rebel district in the city of Homs last year, Abu Sakkar told the magazine that Alawite troops “were the ones who killed our children in Baba Amr and raped our women.” He held the same sect responsible for a recent massacre said to have been carried out by supporters of Mr. Assad. “They were the ones who slaughtered the children and women in Bayda,” he said. “We didn't start it, they started it.”

The rebel commander, who has also been accused by Human Rights Watch of taking part in the indiscriminate shelling of Shiite Muslim villages across the border in Lebanon, said that he had never before tried to eat the liver of a dead enemy soldier. (According to a surgeon who screened the video for Time magazine, the organ was not the dead man's liver but part of his lung.)

Abu Sakkar seemed to confirm that the point of the video was to instill terror in enemy fighters when he claimed to have another video. “In the clip I am sawing another shabiha,” he said, using the Syrian Arabic word for a member of a pro-Assad militia notorious for its brutality. “Hopefully we will slaughter all of them.”

After the video of Abu Sakkar biting into the flesh of the dead soldier spread online this week, a French photojournalist recognized him as the same man he had interviewed last year for Britain's Channel 4 News. The journalist, who uses the pseudonym Mani, said that Abu Sakkar was a former street vendor from Baba Amr, a district of Homs, who first took up arms as part of the city's rebel Farouq Brigade.

Last August, after the brigade had been driven out of Baba Amr, Mani filmed Abu Sakkar instructing other fighters in sniper fire during fighting in the town of Talbiseh.

Writing on the Channel 4 News Web site on Tuesday, Mani recalled:

He continually cracked jokes - often dark ones - but this initially didn't disturb me, as black humor is common during war. Sometimes he unnerved me. I never really knew if he was joking or not. Unlike most of the other fighters I was with on that trip, I never felt 100 percent safe with him.

He would often joke he was a member of Al Qaeda, and that if I wasn't careful he'd cut my throat. He said this repeatedly. There was an element of bravado in his talk, he would always say it in front of the other fighters. Sometimes he would laugh afterwards, sometimes not. It was disturbing.

Abu Sakkar told Time magazine that he was currently fighting near the border with Lebanon around the Syrian town of Qusayr, a focal point for clashes between insurgent Sunni fighters and Shiite militants loyal to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant organization. The multiconfessional area is of strategic importance because it links the capital, Damascus, with routes to Lebanon used by the rebels, as well as government strongholds along the coast.

Writing about the atrocity for Foreign Policy on Tuesday, Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said:

Abu Sakkar is just one man, and there are many other armed fighters in Syria who reject such sectarian actions and would be horrified by the mutilation and desecration of a corpse - let alone an act of cannibalism. But he is a commander in a decisive battle in Syria - hardly a marginal figure.

To prevent further atrocities, Mr. Bouckaert argued that the United Nations Security Council should give the International Criminal Court jurisdiction to indict Syrians for war crimes:

The work of the I.C.C. will be only one piece of the larger accountability effort needed in the wake of this conflict - national trials, documentation, truth telling, reparations and vetting will also be necessary - but it is a crucial step, given the pervasive climate of impunity currently plaguing Syria.