SYRIAN President Bashar al-Assad has authorised war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, the United Nations' human rights commission said yesterday, the first time the agency has publicly accused the president of directing such abuses.
Navi Pillay, the head of the UN office of the high commissioner for human rights, said the scale and ferocity of abuses being perpetrated in Syria by both sides almost defied belief. Investigators had "produced massive evidence", Mrs Pillay told a news conference. "They point to the fact that the evidence indicates responsibility at the highest level of government, including the head of state."
Earlier this year, Mrs Pillay suggested that the UN had evidence implicating Mr Assad through the actions of his subordinates, but yesterday marked the first time her office has so publicly and so directly ascribed responsibility to the president.
She said that other senior officials in the regime were also responsible.
Reports on Mr Assad's role have been drawn from inside the regime, from survivors' accounts and from intelligence handed to the UN from outside the country.
Despite her statement, Mrs Pillay said that the list of suspected criminals would remain secret until any nation or international body requested it for a formal "credible investigation", and then possibly used for prosecution.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group, said the death toll in the civil war had risen to at least 125,835, with at least a third of those killed civilians.
Last week, the UN warned that the Syrian conflict was creating a damaged generation, with many of the more than 1.1 million child refugees going without schooling and forced to engage in child labour.
It was also reported yesterday that six nuns were trapped in an ancient pro-government Christian village, the government said yesterday, after al-Qa'ida linked rebels seized large swathes of the area.
Syrian army tanks were positioned around Maaloula as the fighting sent smoke wafting over the scenic village nestled in hills about 60km north-east of the capital, Damascus.
Forces loyal to President Assad were trying to keep rebels led by the al Qa'ida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, from advancing.
Opposition fighters have taken control of several parts of the village since blowing up a checkpoint at its entrance on Friday, according to reports by the state news agency and opposition activists.
The fighting is part of a wider battle over a string of towns and villages in the rugged Qalamoun border region in an effort to control a strategic highway and smuggling routes from neighbouring Lebanon.
The town had been firmly in the government's grip but surrounded by rebel-held territory until Friday. Five nuns and their Mother Superior, Pelagia Sayaf were trapped in the Mar Takla Convent, which sits above Maaloula, according to reports.
Syria's Minister of Social Affairs Kindah al-Shammat demanded that countries supporting the rebels pressure them to release the nuns.
Many of the some 3,000 residents have already fled to Damascus, fearing rebels would punish them for supporting Assad and because they are Christians, one of the villagers said in a telephone interview. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for his safety. Others have taken shelter in the convent.
While two bishops and a priest have been kidnapped by rebels, no nuns have been reported harmed in the three-year conflict, which began as a popular uprising against Assad but quickly morphed into a civil war.
Syria's minorities, including Christians, have mostly sided with Assad's rule or remained neutral, fearing for their fate if rebels, dominated by Islamic extremists, come to power. (© Daily Telegraph, London)