September 30, 2015 / 9:40 AM / 2 years ago

France investigates Syria's Assad for crimes against humanity

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad answers questions during an interview with al-Manar's journalist Amro Nassef, in Damascus, Syria, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA on August 25, 2015.SANA/Handout via Reuters

PARIS (Reuters) - France is investigating Bashar al-Assad over alleged crimes against humanity, the Paris prosecutor's office said on Wednesday, launching a case that highlights divisions among major powers over relations with the Syrian leader.

The investigation, which is also examining claims of torture and kidnapping by Assad's forces, was opened "on the basis of indications received from the foreign ministry" on Sept. 10, an official at the prosecutor's office said.

An estimated 250,000 people have been killed in Syria's four-year civil war between Assad's troops, rebel groups and Islamic State militants, and a further 11 million displaced.

The ministry's dossier drew on some 55,000 photographic images smuggled out of the country by a former Syrian army officer, showing 11,000 alleged victims of forces loyal to Assad, according to various media reports.

The competence of French courts to try those held responsible may hinge on the identification of French nationals among the victims. Even in that event, the prospect of a trial in France would appear remote.

In the face of sustained Russian support for the Syrian president, France recently joined other western powers in softening earlier demands that Assad leave office as a precondition for peace talks.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on Monday to look for a diplomatic end to the war but clashed over whether Assad should retain power.

Reporting by Chine Labbé; Writing by Laurence Frost; editing by John Stonestreet

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