BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces may have committed crimes against humanity when they crushed protests in the town of Tel Kelakh in May, Amnesty International said on Wednesday.
Urging the United Nations to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court, the human rights group said nine people died in custody after being captured during the operation in the town, close to the Lebanese border.
"Amnesty International considers that crimes committed in Tel Kalakh amount to crimes against humanity as they appear to be part of a widespread, as well as systematic, attack against the civilian population," it said.
In what it described as a "devastating security operation," scores of men were arbitrarily arrested and tortured, including people already wounded, in response to largely peaceful demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad, it said.
The military operation in Tel Kelakh, completed in a few days in mid-May, sent thousands of people fleeing for shelter into Lebanon, Amnesty said in a report compiled from witness testimony gathered in Lebanon and from phone calls into Syria.
"The accounts we have heard from witnesses to events in Tel Kelakh paint a deeply disturbing picture of systematic, targeted abuses to crush dissent," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director.
"Most of the crimes described in this report would fall within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. But the U.N. Security Council must first refer the situation in Syria to the Court's Prosecutor."
Tel Kelakh was one of several towns and cities across the country where Assad sent troops and security forces to crush protests against his rule which have now lasted 14 weeks.
Syrian activists say security forces have killed more than 1,300 civilians during the unrest. Authorities say 500 soldiers and police have been killed by armed gangs who they also blame for most of the civilian deaths.
Most independent media have been barred from Syria, making it hard to verify accounts from activists and authorities.
Amnesty said the protests which triggered the crackdown in Tel Kelakh were peaceful apart from one incident on April 27 when the arrest of a local cleric sparked violent clashes in which two members of the security forces were killed.
When operations against Tel Kelakh began on May 14, at least one person was killed on the first day, Amnesty said. "Even the ambulance carrying his body came under fire. As many tried to leave, Syrian forces fired on fleeing families," it said.
Scores of men were rounded up, and most of them were tortured. Some detainees told Amnesty that they were beaten and held in the 'shabah' (ghost) position, tied by the wrists to a bar high enough off the ground to force them to stand on the tip of their toes for long periods.
"They tied me up in the shabah position and applied electricity to my body and testicles," Amnesty quoted one 20-year-old man describing his daily treatment during five days of detention in the provincial capital Homs.
Eight of the men Amnesty recorded as dying in detention were shot and wounded as they were ordered out of a house, and were then taken away by soldiers. When relatives were told to identify their bodies they had marks suggesting torture.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)