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By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - Switzerland opened a war-crimes investigation into Rifaat al-Assad, an uncle of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, almost four years ago, but it has stalled despite "compelling evidence", an activist group and lawyers said on Monday.

The Geneva-based activists TRIAL International said that it had brought the complaint against Rifaat al-Assad for alleged massacres in Tadmor in 1980 and Hama in 1982, and was joined by Swiss lawyers for six Syrian plaintiffs seeking justice.

"He was in command of the Defense Brigades – the country’s elite commando troops – in the 1980s," the group said in a statement. "Under his lead, the Brigades are suspected of participating in the massacre of several thousand people in Tadmor and Hama."

Following TRIAL's complaint, an investigation of Assad - the uncle of Bashar al-Assad and the younger brother of his father, Hafez Assad, Syria's former president - began in 2013, the group said. But the criminal inquiry "seems to be a standstill", the plaintiffs' lawyers, led by Damien Chervaz, said in a statement.

The Swiss attorney general confirmed that an investigation into war crimes was opened in December 2013 against a Syrian national who was the alleged commander of a military unit in the 1980s but declined to confirm his identity.

Its investigations were time-consuming because of the "complex" nature of incidents that occurred long ago in another country, the attorney general's office said in a statement. A spokeswoman said it had no further comment on any criticisms.

A lawyer for Rifaat al-Assad in Paris, Pierre Haik, told Reuters that he had no information about the Swiss procedure but that his client had always contested such accusations.

A former Syrian vice president who was sent into exile in the 1980s, Assad lives in France, where he was put under investigation for tax fraud and money-laundering last year. In April, Spain confiscated property he owned, as part of a investigation into alleged money-laundering.

(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay, additional reporting by Simon Carraud in Paris, editing by Larry King)

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