Middle East

Syria unrest: UN rights body to investigate crackdown

This image taken from amateur video made available on 17 August 2011 purports to show armoured vehicles and troops as they take up positions in Latakia, Syria
Image caption The UN says more than 2,200 people have died since March in Syria's crackdown

The UN Human Rights Council has ordered an investigation into violations reportedly committed by Syrian security forces during the crackdown on dissent.

It passed a resolution to "urgently dispatch an independent international commission of inquiry" and demanded an end to the violence against protesters.

EU countries and the US say they have prepared a draft resolution calling for UN sanctions against the government.

The UN says more than 2,200 people have died since protests began in mid-March.

The draft resolution drawn up at the UN in New York calls for targeted sanctions against President Assad and 22 members of his ruling circle, as well as Syria's General Intelligence Directorate.

But Russia, a member of the UN Security Council and a staunch ally of President Assad, says it doesn't see the need to go beyond a Council statement issued earlier this month, which condemned the violence in Syria

Further UN action

At the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva earlier in the day, there were 33 votes in favour of the resolution on Syria, four against - reportedly including China, Russia and Cuba - and nine abstentions.

Before the vote, Syria's UN ambassador in Geneva, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, said the resolution was unbalanced.

"This once again confirms that there is a determination to politically condemn Syria and pass over any proposal for opening and reform that exists in this country," he said.

The emergency session had the backing even of Syria's neighbours such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, says the BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Geneva.

Evidence from UN human rights experts that Syrian troops have been using tanks and snipers against unarmed demonstrators, even knives to finish off the injured, has caused shock and outrage worldwide.

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Media captionThe crackdown on protesters is drawing continued criticism from the international community

US ambassador Susan Rice said the decision to investigate alleged human rights abuses showed the "chorus of international condemnation against the Syrian regime" had grown louder and more unified.

But calls by the US and UK for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down irritated some member states; in the end, Russia and China voted against the resolution, calling it one-sided and over politicised, our correspondent says.

The European Union on Tuesday widened its sanctions against Syria, adding 15 people and five institutions to those already targeted.

'Your turn, Bashar'

The UN says it has a humanitarian mission in Syria in order "to assess such needs as food and medicine".

The mission visited the central city of Homs on Monday, but was advised to leave for security reasons when protests started.

Rights activists said three people were killed when security personnel and militia opened fire on crowds who had gathered to welcome the UN team.

Inspired by recent events in Libya, many protesters chanted: "Gaddafi is gone, it's your turn Bashar."

Reuters reported that local pro-democracy activists has said security forces raided countryside near Hama, killing at least five people, as the UN team toured Syria.

Surprise visit

Meanwhile, Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, made a surprise visit to the southern town of Jassem, where activists say Syrian forces in May killed at least 12 people in response to unrest.

A state department spokeswoman said the Syrian authorities had been informed after the trip "because they haven't been approving any visits by anybody, anywhere".

The spokeswoman said Mr Ford had spoken to a number of residents, adding: "His message back to them was that we stand with them and that we admire the fact that their action has been completely peaceful."

Opposition politicians meeting in Turkey appeared to be struggling to form a united front against President Assad's regime.

The Associated Press reported that one politician said a national council had been formed, but another said there was no council to speak of as yet.

Syria's protests first erupted in mid-March. The demonstrators are demanding the removal of President Assad, whose family have been in power for 40 years.

As well as civilians, human rights groups say 500 soldiers have been killed and thousands arrested since March. The government has blamed the unrest on "armed criminal gangs".

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