U.N. panel reports ‘new levels of brutality’ in Syria conflict

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United Nations human rights investigators said on Tuesday the Syrian regime has been using civilians as “human shields,” adding that they had reasonable ground to believe that limited amounts of chemical weapons had been used in the conflict.

“The conflict in Syria has reached new levels of brutality”, the 29-page report said, according to Reuters news agency. “War crimes, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations continue apace.”

Syrian leaders must be held accountable for directing a policy that includes besieging and bombing cities and executing civilians, the investigators said.

“The documented violations are consistent and widespread, evidence of a concerted policy implemented by the leaders of Syria’s military and government,” they said in their fifth report on the 26-month-old war that has killed more than 80,000.

Government forces and allied militia have committed murder, torture, rape and other inhumane acts, the report said.

For the past two weeks, Syrian government forces have laid siege to the border town of Qusayr where agencies say hundredsof wounded and other civilians are trapped in dire conditions.

Syrian rebels and allied foreign militants have murdered civilians as well as captured soldiers, often after “show trials” in an increasingly sectarian conflict, the report said.

“They continue to endanger the civilian population by positioning military objectives in civilian areas,” it added.

However, war crimes by rebels, including murder, torture and hostage-taking, did not reach the intensity and scale of those committed by government forces and affiliated militia.

The team called on the U.N. Security Council to ensure that those responsible for crimes face justice, including by possible referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court.

In their latest report, they said they had received allegations that Syrian government forces had used the banned weapons.

“There are reasonable grounds to believe that limited quantities of toxic chemicals were used. It has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator,” Paulo Pinheiro, who chairs the U.N. commission of inquiry, told a news conference in Geneva.

“The witnesses that we have interviewed include victims, refugees who fled some areas, and medical staff,” Pinheiro said, declining to be more specific for reasons of confidentiality.

Turkey’s delegate at the meeting called for the international intervention in Syria against the “regime’s crimes.”

President Bashar al-Assad’s government and its opponents have accused each other of using chemical weapons.

The commission examined four reported toxic attacks in March and April but could not determine which side was behind them.

The U.N. team of more than 20 investigators conducted 430interviews from Jan. 15 to May 15 among refugees in neighboring countries and by Skype with people still in Syria.

Vitit Muntarbhorn, one of its members, said the team had cross-checked testimony about chemical weapons and viewed videos including on YouTube.

But findings remained inconclusive and it was vital that a stalled separate team of experts named by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon be given full access to Syria to collect samples from victims and sites of alleged attacks, the team said.

In any case, atrocities committed with conventional weapons far outweighed any casualties from the use of chemical agents, Pinheiro said, noting the absence of a large-scale toxic attack.

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