(AP) Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces and pro-government shabiha fighters have perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity on Syrian civilians, a U.N. expert panel concluded Wednesday in a report that provides in chilling detail further evidence of a conflict spiraling out of control.
The panel appointed by the U.N.'s 47-nation Human Rights Council blamed the government and allied militia for the killing of more than 100 civilians in the village of Houla in May, nearly half of them children, and said the murders, unlawful killing, torture, sexual violence and indiscriminate attacks "indicate the involvement at the highest levels of the armed and security forces and the government."
The panel also concluded in its final report Wednesday to the Geneva-based council that anti-government armed groups committed war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture, but at a lesser frequency and scale.
Its release came hours after a bomb exploded in the Syrian capital of Damascus outside a hotel where U.N. observers are staying. The bomb was attached to a fuel truck and wounded at least three people, Syrian state TV reported. Activists also reported fighting near the government headquarters and the Iranian embassy, both in Damascus, along with clashes in different parts of Syria.
The expert panel appointed to probe abuses in Syria has had hardly any access to Syria, with only its chairman allowed into Damascus. Most of the report, which covers the period between Feb. 15 and July 20, was conducted during field interviews and in Geneva with Syrian refugees outside the country.
The panel conducted 1,062 interviews, but emphasized their lack of ability to carry out their U.N. mandate within Syria hampered their investigation.
The commission is headed by Brazilian diplomat and professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro and also includes Karen Koning AbuZayd, a U.S. citizen and former head of UNRWA, the U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees. A third panel member had dropped out.
Their report, whose findings are more conclusive about the Houla massacre than previous interim findings, could be used by world powers to justify tougher outside action against Syria, or strengthen calls for an international investigation and prosecution of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The council could renew the mandate of the panel or it could appoint Pinheiro to become a special investigator of Syria, a position that the council created in March but has left unfilled until now.
Earlier this year, the council said in a resolution that it agreed with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in her call for action by the International Criminal Court based at The Hague.
Activists say more than 20,000 people have been killed since the start of Syria's revolt, inspired by other Arab Spring uprisings against autocratic regimes in the region.
The conflict has slowly changed into a full blown civil war that the panel says involves "more brutal tactics and new military capabilities on both sides."