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Syria rebels attacking Shia and Christian religious sites


New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch warned that rebel groups appeared to have destroyed or allowed the looting of minority religious sites in northern Syria.

"The destruction of religious sites is furthering sectarian fears and compounding the tragedies of the country," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at the New York-based HRW.

In the northern Idlib province, where rebels have taken swathes of territory from government forces, the New York-based rights group said opposition fighters destroyed a Shia "husseiniya" - a site for worship and gatherings.

A video published online showed rebels hoisting assault rifles in the air and cheering as the site in the village of Zarzour, taken by rebels in December, burned in the background.

Indiscipline and looting by rebels in some areas has also undermined civilian support for their cause, especially among minority groups.

In the western Latakia province, Human Rights Watch quoted residents as saying gunmen working "in the name of the opposition" had broken into and stolen from Christian churches in two villages.

A resident in Jdeideh, one of the villages, reported that gunmen had broken into the local church, stolen and fired shots inside, after government troops had fled, the rights group said. Local rebels denied they attacked the church, it added.

"While the motivation for the church break-ins may have been theft rather than a religious attack, opposition fighters have a responsibility to protect religious sites in areas under their control from willful damage and theft," Human Rights Watch said.

Meanwhile, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in a statement on Wednesday the livelihoods of about half of the country's population were threatened as a result of the Syrian crisis.

The UN says that about 80 percent of 10 million Syrians -- about 46 percent of the population -- derive their livelihoods from agriculture.

"Twenty-two months of conflict has left Syria's agricultural sector in tatters with cereal, fruit and vegetable production dropping for some by half and massive destruction of irrigation and other infrastructure," the statement said.

"Destruction of infrastructure in all sectors is massive," said Dominique Burgeon, FAO's Emergency and Rehabilitation Division director after a five-day visit to both regime- and rebel-controlled areas.

The FAO said wheat and barley production was halved last year, going from 4 to 4.5 million tonnes in normal years to less than 2 million tonnes.

"Only 45 percent of the farmers were able to fully harvest their cereal crops while 14 percent reported they could not harvest due to insecurity and lack of fuel," the FAO said.

It highlighted a lack of irrigation because of damage to irrigation canals and a lack of fuel, while the movement of livestock to grazing areas was thwarted.

The survival of livestock, said the FAO, "is compromised by the lack of animal feed and veterinary drugs, the importation of which is hampered by sanctions."

Poultry farms have also been destroyed in the central provinces of Homs and Hama, and in Idlib in the northwest.

(Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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