International investigators on Thursday handed the UN a list of Syrian officials suspected of crimes against humanity, as a defiant regime brushed off an outcry over the killing of two journalists.
Fifty-two people were killed across the country, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, as activists spoke of “terrifying explosions” in Homs as encircling troops pounded rebel areas for a 20th straight day.
In a report, an international panel said it had submitted a list of Syrian military and political officials suspected of crimes against humanity to the UN’s top human rights official.
“The commission has deposited with the High Commissioner (for Human Rights, Navi Pillay) a comprehensive database containing all evidence collected,” said the commission of inquiry.
“Consistent with its mandate, the commission endeavoured, where possible, to identify those responsible with a view to ensuring that perpetrators of violations, including those that may constitute crimes against humanity, are held accountable,” added the inquiry, commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council.
The panel said it documented a widespread and systematic pattern of gross violations committed by Syrian forces, “in conditions of impunity,” since March 2011 when the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime erupted.
The report said Syria’s government had “manifestly failed” to protect its people, but also said it had found instances of gross abuses committed by rebel fighters, many of them army defectors.
The commission recommended the initiation of an inclusive political dialogue, bringing together the government and opposition groups.
Both sides should “negotiate an end to the violence, to ensure respect for human rights and to address the legitimate demands of the Syrian people,” it said.
Diplomats said former UN secretary general Kofi Annan is the favorite to become the international envoy on the worsening Syria crisis, amid growing pressure for an initiative on the conflict.
The Britain-based Observatory said more than 7,600 have been killed in the 11 months since the uprising began.
The bombardment of Homs — Syria’s third-largest city — centred on Baba Amr neighbourhood, where US reporter Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik were killed on Wednesday.
“Baba Amr, as well as parts of Inshaat, have been shelled since 7:00 am (0500 GMT), while mortar rounds slammed into the Khaldiyeh neighbourhood,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Observatory.
Activist Hadi Abdullah told AFP from inside the city: “We hear terrifying explosions.”
He said the world outcry over the deaths of the journalists and 24 Syrian civilians in Homs on Wednesday appeared only to have strengthened the regime’s determination to eliminate all opposition in the city.
“The more the condemnations pile on, the heavier the bombing becomes,” he said.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy said the killing of the two journalists amounted to “murder” and that “those who did this will have to account for it.”
Abdullah said there was evidence that the makeshift media centre where the journalists were killed and two others wounded was deliberately targeted by regime forces.
“We are sure that the centre was targeted, because 11 rockets struck in and around it,” he said.
“The regime forces intercepted a transmission signal.”
The Syrian government made no denial its forces had fired the lethal rounds.
“We reject statements holding Syria responsible for the deaths of journalists who sneaked into its territory at their own risk,” said a foreign ministry statement read out on state television.
The ministry urged journalists to “respect laws of journalistic work in Syria and avoid breaking the law by entering the country illegally to reach trouble-hit areas that are unsafe.”
Efforts were under way to evacuate two other Western journalists who were wounded — Edith Bouvier, a reporter for French daily Le Figaro, and Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy.
The British Foreign Office said Thursday Conroy was “on his way out” of the besieged city, while Bouvier appeared in a video posted online asking to be evacuated quickly saying she needed urgent medical attention.
Syrian Information Minister Adnan Mahmud said later that Homs’ governor had been instructed to “exert every effort possible to evacuate the journalists.”
Meanwhile, a US official said Arab and Western powers would challenge Syria’s government to accept a proposal to allow in humanitarian aid at a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunis on Friday.
The move comes two days after the International Committee of the Red Cross called for a daily truce of two hours in Syria so it can deliver vital aid to afflicted areas.
Beijing said it would not attend the gathering, in line with a decision by Moscow.
Russia said it and China, which vetoed two UN resolutions over the crackdown, “reaffirmed their joint position” of “excluding foreign intervention in Syrian affairs” and their support for talks with the regime.
And Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Assad’s regime will not fall and that Tehran “supports the Syrian government and will oppose those who act against Syria.”
Internet-based activists called for a day of demonstrations on Friday in support of Baba Amr.
“We will rise up for you Baba Amr,” said a statement posted on the Facebook page of The Syrian Revolution 2011.