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'Immediate ceasefire' urged in Syria

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Speech condemning government's attacks on civiliansThere needs to be an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria, the UN human rights chief has declared, saying the situation has deteriorated rapidly as the Syrian government steps up its onslaught against the opposition.

Navi Pillay's remarks at an emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland, came amid unconfirmed reports that French reporter Edith Bouvier and British photographer Paul Conroy, wounded in Syrian army attacks on Homs, have both been smuggled to safety in neighbouring Lebanon.

Conroy, a photographer for the British Sunday Times has since been confirmed safe in Lebanon. Bouvier's whereabouts, however, remain unknown.

"It has not been confirmed that today she is safe in Lebanon," French President Nicholas Sarkozy said on Tuesday.
 
Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said during Tuesday's debate that the world has to take action to prevent Syrian security forces from continuing their bombardments and other attacks against civilians, which she said had resulted in "countless atrocities".

She also urged Syria to end all fighting, allow international monitors to enter the country and give unhindered access for aid agencies to enter Homs and other besieged cities.

The appeal prompted a bitter response from Syria's ambassador to the UN offices in Geneva, who accused the 47-nation HRC of promoting terrorism in his country.

Before storming out of the room, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, said the urgent meeting would only prolong the crisis in Syria.

"We declare our withdrawal from this sterile discussion," he said. "The call for holding the session is part of a pre-established plan. It is aimed at attacking the Syrian state and its institutions under the pretext of humanitarian needs."

Opposing views

Eileen Donahoe, the US ambassador to the HRC, said: "Anyone who heard the Syrian ambassador should be aware that his comments were borderline out of touch with reality."

On the other hand, Gennady Gatilov, Russia's deputy foreign minister, told the meeting "it is important that the Syrian government co-operates with the ICRC" on the proposed humanitarian ceasefire.

The session in Geneva came on a day the UN said "well over 7,500 people" had been killed in Syria due to the government's 11-month crackdown on protesters, raising its previous estimated death toll by more than 2,000.

"There are credible reports that the death toll now often exceeds 100 civilians a day, including many women and children," Lynn Pascoe, UN under-secretary-general for political affairs, said.

Participating in Tuesday's debate, a senior US diplomat, in remarks apparently aimed at Russia, said the time had come for nations to stop all financial and material support to the Syrian government.

Russia has long sold arms to Syria and, together with China, has repeatedly used its Security Council veto to block international action on Syria.

"None can deny that Bashar al-Assad and his criminal cohort are waging a brutal campaign of slaughter, bombardment, torture, and arrest that already has murdered thousands of women, men and children, with more killed each day," Esther Brimmer, an assistant secretary of state, said.

"Without a halt to the killing and a guarantee of immediate humanitarian access, this despicable regime will murder many more before this heinous chapter in Syria's history is over."

'Crimes against humanity'

Pillay, in her address, cited the report of a UN expert panel last week, which concluded that Syrian government officials were responsible for "crimes against humanity" committed by security forces against opposition members.

The crimes included shelling civilians, executing deserters and torturing detainees. Some opposition groups, too, had committed gross abuses, it said.

The panel has compiled a confidential list of top-level Syrian officials who could face prosecution over the atrocities.

Pillay reiterated her call for Syria to be referred to the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) "in the face of the unspeakable violations that take place every moment".

"More than at any other time, those committing atrocities in Syria have to understand that the international community will not stand by and watch this carnage and that their decisions and the actions they take today ultimately will not go unpunished," she said.

The HRC session will continue on Thursday as more than 20 countries still have to address the Syrian situation, according to the UN.

A planned discussion on a resolution calling for "free and unimpeded access" for the UN and humanitarian agencies in Homs and other areas - filed by Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - has been postponed to Thursday.

Members of the HRC are expected to condemn "widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities".


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