BEIRUT: Turkey-backed rebels in northwest Syria's Afrin have seized, looted and destroyed Kurdish civilians' property after taking control of the region in March, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
Turkey's military and its Syrian rebel allies launched a cross-border operation into Syria earlier this year and drove fighters from the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia out of the town of Afrin and the surrounding area.
Ankara sees the YPG as a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency on Turkish soil. Turkey has threatened to drive the YPG from the entire length of its border.
The United Nations said 137,000 people were displaced by the Afrin offensive, another large population movement in the seven-year long Syrian conflict which has forced more than half of the country's pre-war population from their homes.
Rights group HRW interviewed people who had been displaced from Afrin. They accuse Turkey-backed forces of moving their fighters and people from other parts of Syria into vacated homes and of taking over business premises without paying compensation.
One interviewee, Roni Seydo, left Afrin in March but was told by a friend that an armed group had taken over his house, painting the word "seized" on the outside wall.
He said his neighbours were questioned about his family and it possible links with the PKK.
Another former Afrin resident, photographer Ser Hussein, said one of his two studios was burned down and the other turned into a butchers shop.
"Those who made the decision to take over Afrin also took on the responsibility of ensuring that both the residents of Afrin, and people there who have been displaced elsewhere have basic shelter in a way that doesn't infringe on either of those groups' rights," HRW's acting emergencies director Priyanka Motaparthy said in a report.
"So far it seems that they are failing to do the right thing by either group."
Under the laws of war, pillaging, or forcibly taking private property for personal use is prohibited and can constitute a war crime, HRW said. The laws of war also prohibit destruction of property not justified by military necessity.
HRW said owners should be compensated for the use and damage of their property and the rights of rights of owners and returnees should be guaranteed.
Reuters was not immediately able to reach the rebel groups for comment.
HRW said the Free Syrian Army rebel umbrella group issued a statement on March 9 inviting Afrin residents to submit complaints to the military headquarters in Azaz to claim their looted property.
HRW also said rebel faction Ahrar al-Sharqiyah issued a statement on April 20 denying responsibility for property violations and looting and saying it had arrested several people who may have been involved in such acts.
Turkish officials in March said they were looking into allegations of looting and property seizure and that they would ensure Afrin would be a safe place for residents to return to.
(Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Toby Chopra)