BEIRUT // At least 28,000 Syrians are believed to have disappeared at the hands of government troops during the country's 19-month conflict, rights groups said yesterday, calling for investigations into the fate of the men, women and children.
The whereabouts of thousands of Syrians remains unknown, says Avaaz, a global organisation that has compiled testimonies from people who say family members have gone missing after being taken by Syrian government forces.
The claim came as opposition activists in Syria said 43 people had been killed in airstrikes on rebel-held areas in the north late on Wednesday and early yesterday.
To back its allegations, Avaaz yesterday released video footage showing soldiers pushing two people to the ground before dragging them away, and interviews with Syrians including a man whose daughter and brother were abducted in Homs.
"I don't forget her. We cry. We are living a tragedy. How can I explain?" the man said, his back to the camera. "I don't know what they did to my daughter."
Some of the missing are believed to be held in Syrian jails, although few relatives have concrete information about their whereabouts.
More than 30,000 people have been killed since the revolt against the regime of Bashar Al Assad began in March last year, activists say.
The UN has registered more than 260,000 Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and there are also an estimated 1.5 million people internally displaced within Syria's borders.
"Syrians are being plucked off the street by Syrian security forces and paramilitaries and being 'disappeared' into torture cells," said Alice Jay, Avaaz's campaign director.
"Nobody is safe. This is a deliberate strategy to terrorise families and communities. The panic of not knowing whether your husband or child is alive breeds such fear that it silences dissent.
"The fate of each and every one of these people must be investigated and the perpetrators punished."
Avaaz plans to provide the reports of those missing to the UN Human Rights Council to investigate.
The figures for the number of disappeared, ranging from 28,000 to 80,000, are based on estimates from Syrian human-rights groups and lawyers, said Avaaz, which documents rights breaches in Syria and supports opposition activists.
The figures could not be independently verified.
Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch's deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said the practice of enforced disappearances has been "widespread" in the conflict.
"This is an old trick of the Syrian mukhabarat [secret police], that happened before the uprising," Mr Houry said.
"It's an old habit that has intensified with the uprising."
The violence on the ground in Syria continued yesterday, with the opposition Local Coordination Committees reporting at least 180 people killed across the country, including in Idlib, Damascus and Aleppo.
Opposition activists reported 43 people killed in airstrikes late on Wednesday and early yesterday on rebel-held areas in northern parts of the country including Aleppo and the town of Maaret Al Numan, which was taken by rebel fighters on Tuesday last week.
These figures also could not be independently confirmed.
Rescue workers in Maaret Al Numan said the air force's bombs destroyed two residential buildings and a mosque, where many women and children were taking refuge.
"At the moment it seems only three people survived the attack, including a two-year-old child," said a medical worker, Jaffar Sharhoub. "He survived in the arms of his dead father."
A video purportedly filmed after the airstrikes shows a man holding up two child-sized legs not connected to a body. Another man walks by carrying an arm. Yet another video shows 18 white cloth bundles holding the remains of those killed.
Other videos from the city of Aleppo show the aftermath of an airstrike on a mosque late on Wednesday. While some men carry away bodies, others work to dig out a survivor whose legs are buried in debris. The authenticity of the videos could not be independently verified.
Meanwhile, the UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is due to arrive in Damascus tomorrow for talks with government officials.
Mr Brahimi has been pushing for both sides to observe a truce for the duration of the Eid Al Adha holiday. Previous ceasefire attempts have not been successful.
Speaking yesterday in Amman, he said the temporary ceasefire could be a step towards helping Syrians "resolve their problems and to rebuild a new Syria as aspired for by its people".
Also yesterday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, urged the UN Security Council to "speak with one voice" to end the crisis.
"With no end in sight and no solutions within easy grasp, we are in danger of becoming inured to the horrors that Syrian civilians are suffering day in and day out," Ms Pillay said in Geneva. "But we cannot simply shrug and turn away."
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse