U.N. warns about sectarian fighting in Syria

BRUSSELS Thu Dec 20, 2012 4:40am EST

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The war in Syria has become divided across sectarian lines, increasingly pitting the ruling Alawite community against the majority Sunnis, with foreign fighters assisting both sides, United Nations human rights investigators said on Thursday.

"As battles between government forces and anti-government armed groups approach the end of their second year, the conflict has become overtly sectarian in nature," the independent investigators led by Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro said in their latest 10-page report.

Syrian government forces have increased their use of aerial bombardments, including shelling of hospitals, and evidence suggests that such attacks are "disproportionate", they said. The conduct of hostilities by both sides is "increasingly in breach of international law", they added.

"Feeling threatened and under attack, ethnic and religious minority groups have increasingly aligned themselves with parties to the conflict, deepening sectarian divides," the report said.

Most of the "foreign fighters" filtering into Syria to join rebel groups, or fight independently alongside them, are Sunnis from other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, the U.N. investigators said, reporting on their findings after their latest interviews conducted in the region.

The U.N. report covers the period between September 28 and December 16.

The Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah has confirmed that its members are in Syria fighting on behalf of the government, while there are also reports that Iraqi Shias are coming to fight in Syria, and Iran confirmed in September that its Revolutionary Guards are in Syria providing assistance, it said.

"As the conflict drags on, the parties have become ever more violent and unpredictable, which has led to their conduct increasingly being in breach of international law," it said.

(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak, Writing by Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by Adrian Croft)

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