BEIRUT - Syrian fighters have held 54 women and children hostage for an entire year, a rights group said Wednesday, urging they be freed and warning that holding civilians can amount to a war crime.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the group was captured in the coastal province of Latakia during an opposition offensive a year ago.
Another group of 40 hostages was released in May as part of a deal that allowed Syrian opposition forces safe passage out of the besieged Old City of Homs.
But the group of 54, which includes 34 children, was still being held, apparently "with the intention of compelling government actions, including exchanging the hostages for detainees in government custody," HRW said.
"For a year families have been waiting to be reunited while rebel groups and the government negotiate over their fate," said HRW's Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson.
"Civilian lives are not pawns for fighters to trade. The hostages should be let go immediately." It is unclear which groups are holding the 54 captives, with HRW saying at least 20 separate opposition forces took part in the Latakia offensive last August.
HRW said it had identified several individuals, mostly from Gulf countries, who had fundraised for the Latakia operation and warned that citizens or countries that backed groups involved in hostage-taking could be complicit in war crimes.
The group also repeated its call for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
"Referring Syria to the ICC would send a clear message to all combatants that they must abide by the laws of war," Whitson said.
"Civilians in Syria on all sides have paid dearly for Russia and China's obstructionism" in the UN Security Council on the issue of referring to the conflict to the court, she added.
More than 170,000 people have been killed in Syrian since the conflict began in March 2011.