AMSTERDAM // Pressure mounted on the international community to act against possible war crimes in Syria after claims that regime "death squads" executed 72 people near Aleppo.
Both the rebels fighting to overthrow Bashar Al Assad and the president's forces have been accused of committing war crimes during the Syrian civil war, which started in March 2011. But division within the United Nations Security Council, the only body that can refer cases of war crimes to the International Criminal Court (ICC), has hampered efforts to take action against alleged atrocities.
The latest massacre is said to have taken place in Malkiyeh village in the east of Aleppo province.
Mr Al Assad's "terrorist regime executed 72 people after a raid on Malkiyeh", the opposition Syrian National Coaltion (SNC) said on Thursday.
"These repeated massacres carried out by the regime's death squads show a criminal methodology clearly aimed at sowing terror and hatred between Syrians," the SNC added.
Women, children as young as eight months and the elderly were among the victims while cases of rape and torture were also reported, said the anti-regime Aleppo Press Centre (APC).
It added that houses had been burnt down and that the village had been targeted for its perceived pro-rebel sympathies.
"Twenty-three other people have not been identified because their bodies were too badly burnt," said APC.
These claims come a month after government forces were accused of a massacre in Aleppo in which 65 people were found shot dead with their hands bound.
The events in Malkiyeh might add impetus to efforts to prevent further abuses but activists and human rights advocates are sceptical of the international community's ability to take action because Russia and China oppose Syria's referral to the ICC and can veto Security Council resolutions.
If there is "no mechanism to hold everybody accountable who committed an atrocity, people may do it themselves", Mohammad Al Abdallah, director of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center, told The National.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that "dozens of civilians" were killed in Malkiyeh and called for the UN to investigate the case, for which there was no independent confirmation.
Even before reports of the Malkiyeh massacre emerged, the UN's Independent Commission of Inquiry was to hand the Security Council a sealed list naming individuals and groups responsible for the worst violations in Syria.
The UN's Human Rights Council will this month discuss the Commission's report on Syria. Navi Pilay, the UN's Human Rights Commissioner, at the opening of the Council's current session decried the inaction over Syria: "The Security Council has so far failed with regard to Syria, despite the repeated reports of widespread or systematic crimes and violations."
Establishing an accountability mechanism for Syria, where the UN has detailed massacres, kidnappings, rape and torture, committed mostly but not exclusively by the government, is urgent, said Mr Al Abdallah.
Offering Syrians a prospect of eventual accountability can help alleviate the risk of revenge killings during the conflict, he said.
"People are more and more getting the sense that we are watched being killed and when they offer us support they send us cameras and phones to film how we are getting killed but not to stop the killing."
There is increasing international concern over the consequences of inaction. Switzerland in January sent a letter to the Security Council, signed by 57 other governments, urging it to refer Syria to the ICC.
"I think it is a strong signal to those who perpetrate the crimes, you are being watched, you will be prosecuted and it's a strong signal to the people of Syria, we have not forgotten you, we are pushing for this, we want you to have justice," said Jürg Lauber, of the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs.
But Mr Lauber conceded that Switzerland's petition has no legal status and it cannot force the Security Council's hand.
Nadim Houry, based in Lebanon with Human Rights Watch, believes the Swiss initiative is worthwhile. "My impression is that the issue has gained more momentum and it also exposes the hollow rhetoric… There is quite a lot of hypocrisy at the level of the international community on Syria. Countries say we want justice for Syria but then for example they don't sign up to the Swiss initiative."
Tunisia was the only Arab country to sign the letter.
It sends a negative signal if the Arab world itself cannot get fully behind a war crimes referral to the ICC, said Mr Houry.
"It is very important to have big Arab countries like Egypt sign up to it," he said.
Only two countries in the Middle East, Jordan and Tunisia, have ratified the statute of the ICC. The US, Russia and China have not signed up to it either.
Marlies Glasius, an expert in international relations at the University of Amsterdam, said it was not surprising that countries that have not signed up to the Court do not lobby actively to refer Syria.
That does not mean that a referral is completely out of the question. "We have seen in the past a couple of times that an independent commission of inquiry was a stepping stone to a referral to a tribunal or the ICC. We saw that in the former Yugoslavia and in the case of Sudan and Darfur."
One problem is that Russia and China feel that international intervention in Libya, which they initially backed, went further than what they had bargained for and they don't relish a repeat. "Russia and China feel a bit tricked after the Libya case. And there is also a concern that if they go along with a referral to the ICC, it takes us a step closer to intervention," said Glasius.
email@example.com with additional reports by Agence France-Presse