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U.N. panel on Syria claims orders to kill protestors came straight from the top

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Syrian forces have shot dead unarmed women and children, shelled residential areas and tortured wounded protesters in hospital under orders from the “highest level” of army and government officials, the United Nations said on Thursday.

Independent U.N. investigators called for perpetrators of such crimes against humanity to face prosecution and said they had drawn up a confidential list of names of commanding officers and officials alleged to be responsible.

“The commission received credible and consistent evidence identifying high- and mid-ranking members of the armed forces who ordered their subordinates to shoot at unarmed protestors, kill soldiers who refused to obey such orders, arrest persons without cause, mistreat detained persons and attack civilian neighborhoods with indiscriminate tanks and machine-gun fire,” a panel of U.N. human rights experts, headed by Brazilian Paulo Pinheiro, said in a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The U.N. experts indicated that the list goes as high as President Bashar Assad.

“The commission has deposited with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights a sealed envelope containing the names of these people, which might assist future credible investigations by competent authorities.”

It doesn’t say who these investigating authorities might be, but the U.N.’s top human rights official has previously called for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Members of the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council are expected to hold a special meeting on Syria in Geneva next week, at which the panel's report will be formally presented.

Armed opposition groups, loosely connected under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, also committed some gross human rights abuses, the panel said. It cited the torture and execution of soldiers or suspected pro-government militia members, “although not comparable in scale.”

Thousands of Syrians have died in the violence since March and the panel, citing what it called a reliable source, said at least 500 children are among the dead.

Information gathered from outside sources

International pressure has been building on Assad’s government to halt its violent suppression of the opposition. Earlier this week the International Committee of the Red Cross called for temporary cease-fires so it could reach those trapped and wounded in the worst-affected areas.

But human rights groups say the violence is only increasing, with dozens dying every day from government shelling of cities like Homs, a rebel stronghold.

The U.N. panel was denied entry to Syria by the government, which accused it of ignoring official information and exceeding its mandate. The panel instead gathered much of its information from sources outside the country, including human rights activists and Syrian army defectors.

The report claims that the ruling Baath Party’s National Security Bureau was responsible for translating government policies into military operations that led to the systematic arrest or killing of civilians.

It says the four main intelligence and security agencies reporting directly to Assad - Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, the General Intelligence Directorate and the Political Security Directorate – “were at the heart of almost all operations.”

The report details how businessmen helped hire and arm informal pro-government militias known as the Shabbiha.

“In a number of operations, the commission documented how Shabbiha members were strategically employed to commit crimes against humanity and other gross violations,” it said.

The report also identifies 38 detention centers “for which the commission documented cases of torture and ill-treatment since March 2011.”