This post has been corrected. Please see the note at the bottom for details.
REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -– Adding to the international pressure on Syria, a U.N. panel on Monday accused President Bashar Assad's regime of gross human rights violations in its crackdown on protesters, including torturing and killing children, shooting unarmed demonstrators and raping detainees.
The 39-page report, prepared by an independent panel of experts for the U.N. Human Rights Council, offers the most detailed account yet of the crackdown, which the United Nations says has killed more than 3,500 people since major protests began in March.
At least 256 children have been killed since early November, including a 2-year-old girl allegedly shot by an officer who said he did not want her to grow up to be a demonstrator, the report says. Several men told the panel they had been raped with rods and saw boys receive the same treatment. Some soldiers who refused to carry out orders to open fire on peaceful demonstrators were themselves reportedly shot and killed.
The opposition Local Coordination Committees reported 16 more deaths Monday, including a “little girl.” The claim could not be independently verified because the activities of journalists, human rights activists and international observers are heavily restricted in Syria.
The commission of inquiry said it was “gravely concerned that crimes against humanity have been committed” and called on the government to immediately halt abuses, initiate independent and impartial investigations and bring the perpetrators to justice.
In a Nov. 17 letter addressed to the panel, Syria’s government blamed the bloodshed on “armed outlaws who are terrorizing our citizens … in order to divide the country along sectarian lines and incite civil war.” The government says more than 1,100 security force members have been killed.
Pressure has been mounting on Assad’s regime to curtail the violence. The report was released the day after the Arab League imposed sweeping sanctions on Syria, a move the country’s foreign minister, Walid Moallem described as “economic war.” The official Syrian Arab News Agency said government supporters flooded squares in a number of cities and towns to protest the decision.
France, which is proposing the establishment of “humanitarian corridors” to get aid into Syria, said the international community must act.
"More than ever it has a duty to stop the suffering of the civilian population," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in a statement released after publication of the report.
The panel, which was not allowed to visit Syria, said it interviewed 223 victims and witnesses of alleged human rights abuses, including civilians and defectors from the Syrian forces. It also consulted regional organizations, human rights activists and journalists, among others.
A former detainee described seeing a 14-year-old who was allegedly tortured to death in detention.
"The boy was lying on the floor and was completely blue," said the witness. "He was bleeding profusely from his ear, eyes and nose. He was shouting and calling for his mother and father for help. He fainted after being hit with a rifle butt on the head.”
Other victims were allegedly tortured and killed by security force members dressed as doctors and acting with the complicity of medical personnel at the Homs Military Hospital, the report says.
A defector told the panel that he was given orders in May to take on armed groups which his commander said were attacking civilians and burning government buildings in the town of Talbiseh in the central Homs region. But when his unit reached the area, he said, “we did not see any armed group."
“The protesters called for freedom. They carried olive branches and marched with their children,” he said. “We opened fire; I was there. We used machine guns and other weapons. There were many people on the ground, injured or killed."
For the record, 2:20 p.m., Nov. 28: A previous version of this post carried a headline that said the U.N. panel had accused Syria of "crimes against humanity." It should have said "gross human rights violations."
-- Alexandra Sandels and Alexandra Zavis
Photo: This handout photograph reportedly shows demonstrators gathered Monday in the town of Hula during a protest against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Credit: Handout via Reuters