REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- The United Nations' top human-rights official assailed the Syrian government Friday for a campaign of “ruthless repression and killings” and called for the international community to take steps to prevent the nation from plunging into “full-blown civil war.”
U.N. condemnation came as activists said thousands of demonstrators took to Syria's streets Friday (see video below) in weekly after-prayer protests, with some reportedly carrying signs backing soldiers who have reportedly switched sides and clashed with security services.
Navi Pillay, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, presented a version of events that essentially agreed with anti-government activists, who say Syrian authorities have routinely attacked protesters without provocation. The administration of President Bashar Assad has blamed the violence on terrorists armed from abroad and seeking to overthrow the government.
“Since the start of the uprising in Syria, the government has consistently used excessive force to crush peaceful protests,” Pillay said in a statement issued in Geneva. “Sniping from rooftops, and indiscriminate use of force against peaceful protestors — including the use of live ammunition and the shelling of residential neighborhoods — have become routine occurrences in Syrian cities.”
The result has been “a devastatingly remorseless toll of human lives,” said Pillay, a South African national who holds a doctorate from Harvard and has served as an international and South African judge, according to her official biography.
The death toll in Syria since anti-government protests erupted in March has now topped 3,000, including at least 187 children, Pillay said. More than 100 people have died in the last 10 days, she said.
Thousands more, she added, have been “arrested, detained, forcibly disappeared and tortured,” while family members inside and outside Syria “have been targeted for harassment, intimidation, threats and beatings.”
Included in the 3,000 dead, said a U.N. spokesman, are military defectors who have switched sides and security officers "apparently summarily executed" for refusing to shoot civilians. The figure does not include security officers allegedly killed by armed insurgents. The government says more than 1,100 security personnel have been killed.
The U.N. rights commissioner called on the international community to “take protective action in a collective and decisive manner.” Later, her spokesman told journalists that the precise response was for individual nations and the U.N. Security Council to decide.
In August, Pillay said she found “credible evidence” of crimes against humanity in Syria and urged the Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court for potential prosecution.
Whether the Security Council will take any action on Syria remains a question mark. On Oct. 4, Russia and China, two allies of Damascus, vetoed a U.S.-backed resolution that would have condemned “grave and systematic human rights violations” in Syria. Officials of the two powers said later that they feared the U.N. action could be used to mount a Western-led, Libya-style campaign of foreign intervention and even bombing against Syria.
Some activists have called for intervention short of a bombing campaign, such as the introduction of foreign monitors into Syria or the establishment of safe buffer zones for civilians. But the Assad regime generally rejects such steps as foreign interference meant to orchestrate an overthrow.
The Obama administration and other Western governments have called on Assad to step down. The Russian and Chinese governments have urged Assad to institute reforms.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Syrians attend a "freedom festival" in front of the Syrian Embassy, in Amman, Jordan on Thursday. The festival was attended by hundreds of Syrians living in Amman, who demanded the end of Bashar Assad's regime. Credit: Mohammad Hannon / Associated Press
Video: Amateur footage purporting to show an anti-government protest in Homs, Syria, on Friday. The authenticity of this video could not be independently verified. Credit: YouTube.