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Syrian rebel group appears to use Alawites in a cage as human shields

Jaish al-Islam have been accused of using human shields to 'prevent regime bombardment' on areas they control
A picture released on social media shows Alawites kept in cages (Twitter)

A Syrian opposition group has provoked controversy after appearing to use Alawites in a cage as human shields against bombardment by the Syrian government.

Jaish al-Islam, regarded as the most powerful rebel group near the capital, has put government soldiers and Alawite civilians it was holding in metal cages, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP.

The group then placed these cages in public squares in the Eastern Ghouta region in an attempt to "prevent regime bombardment," observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

"Jaish al-Islam is using these captives and kidnapped people - including whole families - as human shields," he said.

Government forces regularly bombard the Eastern Ghouta area, from where rebel groups fire rockets into the capital.

On Friday, at least 70 people were killed and 550 wounded in government bombardment of Douma, a large town in the area.

A video published by opposition news outlet Shaam Network showed cages of men and women, about five people in each, being transported on the backs of three lorries through war-ravaged streets as young children rode by on bicycles.

Speaking to camera, both men and women asked government forces to stop shelling Eastern Ghouta.

"Your women are our women. If you want to kill my mother, you will kill them too," a dark-eyed teenage boy said outside one of the trucks.

Abdel Rahman said most of the civilians were kidnapped by Jaish al-Islam two years ago outside Adra al-Ummaliyah, a government-held neighbourhood in Eastern Ghouta.

A Jaish al-Islam spokesperson was not reachable for comment.

Both government forces and rebel groups have been criticised by rights groups for indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Syria's war, which has killed more than 250,000 people since it began in March 2011.

Jaish al-Islam's leader, Zahran Alloush, has previously been criticised for making apparently sectarian remarks about Alawites, referring to them as "rafida" (rejectionists) in a speech in 2013.

"The mujahediin of Sham will wash the filth of the Rafida and the Rafidia from Sham, they will wash it forever, if Allah wills it, until they cleanse Bilad al-Sham from the filth of the Majous who have fought the religion of Allah," he told a group of his followers.

Later, however, he appeared to retract his rhetoric, referring to the Alawites as "part of the Syrian people" in an interview with the US news website McClatchy in May.

“If we succeed in toppling the regime, we will leave it to the Syrian people to choose the form of state they want,” he said.

“As for coexistence with minorities, this has been the situation in Syria for hundreds of years. We are not seeking to impose our power on minorities or to practice oppression against them.”

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