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US looking into allegations of Kurdish militia war crimes in Syria

State Department says it takes war crimes claims 'very seriously' despite US support for Kurdish militias in Syria against Islamic State militants
A member of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) mans a mounted machine gun in the Al-Nashwa neighbourhood in the northeastern Syrian province of Hasakeh on 26 July 2015 (AFP)

The United States is in the process of looking into "allegations and accusations" that Kurdish militiamen have committed war crimes in northern Syria, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner told reporters on Tuesday.

The Syrian Kurdish militia in question is the People's Protection Units (YPG), which is the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and is engaged in US-backed battles against Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria.

The announcement came following a report by Amnesty International accusing the PYD of forced displacement of thousands of Arab and Turkmen civilians and the razing of entire villages, which amounts to war crimes.

Toner was responding to a reporter who asked if the US was "contradicting [...] international law and some ethical values by providing weapons to those groups which commit war crimes."

The State Department spokesperson said that the US is in "the process of looking at some of these allegations and accusations, certainly we take them seriously and we want to be able to make sure that they're true or whether they have any credibility."

US 'supported them with airstrikes and other supplies'

"We've made clear to all the actors that these – such behaviour, frankly, is unacceptable. And we'll look closely at all these accusations to determine whether there's any veracity to the claims," Toner said.

The State Department spokesman said that the US considers the YPG "a very effective fighting force against ISIL, and as such, we've supported them with airstrikes and other supplies," but denied Washington had given the Kurdish militia ammunition recently. 

When asked about the nature of weapons being sent to the YPG, Toner said: "Well, I'm not going to get into the specifics, but we obviously vet all the leaders and all the groups that we provide weapons to or ammunition to."

Although the YPG is closely linked to Turkey's anti-government militants, the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) - which is classified as a terrorist organisation by the US and EU among other countries – Washington does not view the Syrian Kurdish militia as a terrorist group.

But Ankara considers both groups as a threat to its national security, and on Wednesday Turkey summoned US and Russian envoys to warn against supplying arms and support for Syrian Kurdish militia.

'Ethnically cleansing'

Claims that Kurdish militiamen have been "ethnically cleansing" Arab and Turkmen communities in northern parts of Syria have previously been reported, but the Amnesty report has added weight to accusations that the YPG had been using the fight against IS as a pretext to force out non-Kurds from the area.

"We saw extensive displacement and destruction that did not occur as a result of fighting," said Lama Fakih, senior crisis advisor at Amnesty International.

"This report uncovers clear evidence of a deliberate, co-ordinated campaign of collective punishment of civilians in villages previously captured by IS, or where a small minority were suspected of supporting the group," added Fakih.

In one example cited by Amnesty, satellite images showed the scale of the demolitions in Husseiniya village, in Tel Hamees countryside, where 225 buildings standing in June 2014 became only 14 in June 2015, which the rights group branded as "a shocking reduction" of 93.8 percent.

(Photo credits: Pleiades/Airbus)

'Isolated incidents'

In another example in Raqqa, much of which is under the control of IS, Kurdish militiamen have reportedly threatened to shoot civilian residents if they did not leave, accusing them of being supporters of IS because they did not flee their homes.

"They told us we had to leave or they would tell the US coalition that we were terrorists and their planes would hit us and our families," one resident told Amnesty.

On one occasion, "YPG fighters poured petrol on a house, threatening to set it alight while the inhabitants were still inside," said the rights group.

According to Amnesty, many of the areas where forced displacement took place were not near the front lines of the fight against IS.

The YPG admitted forcibly displacing civilians but added that it was militarily necessary or done for the civilians' own protection, dismissing the reports as "isolated incidents".

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