U.N. war crime investigators seek access to Syria

GENEVA Thu Oct 25, 2012 6:28am EDT

GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations war crimes investigators said on Thursday they had asked to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to seek access for their team, which has been shut out of the country since being set up a year ago.

The international inquiry, led by Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro, has been gathering evidence and testimony on atrocities committed by Syrian government forces and armed rebels in the 19-month-old conflict.

"We decided to send a letter to President al-Assad calling for a meeting ... it would be very important that he could receive us," Pinheiro told reporters in Geneva.

"We intend to go there without conditions to meet President Assad to discuss access of our commission to Syria," added Pinheiro, who went to Damascus in June in his personal capacity for talks with senior Syrian officials.

In their latest report in August, the investigators said that Syrian government forces and allied militia had committed war crimes including murder and torture of civilians in what appeared to be a state-directed policy.

The team has interviewed more than 1,100 victims, refugees and defectors. But they have not had contact with wounded soldiers or families of state forces killed by rebels, due to lack of access to Syria.

Carla del Ponte, a former U.N. war crimes prosecutor, has joined the inquiry. Her eight years at the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia were dominated by the pursuit and trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 before sentencing.

Del Ponte, asked about parallels with past investigations, said: "The similarity is of course we are handling the same crimes, crimes against humanity and war crimes for sure."

She added: "My main task will be to continue the inquiry in the direction of determining the high-ranking political and military authorities responsible for these crimes."

SECRET LIST

Del Ponte praised the panel's work in documenting violations across Syria as providing a "big picture of the crime base" needed to pursue responsibility up the chain of command.

The investigators have drawn up a secret list of Syrian individuals and units suspected of committing crimes which they say could pave the way for future criminal prosecution.

"We are not a tribunal, we are not a criminal prosecution body. What we do is to build evidence for future judicial initiatives in terms of making accountable those responsible for these violations," Pinheiro said on Thursday.

The list is locked in a safe in the office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who has repeatedly called for the Security Council to refer the conflict in Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The list could be handed over one day to a competent judicial body capable of respecting confidentiality and protecting witnesses, but that would require a decision by the Security Council, Pinheiro said.

The inquiry has received allegations about the use of cluster bombs, but had no concrete information, Pinheiro said.

Karen Abuzayd, an American commissioner on the team, told Reuters: "Cluster bombs is on our agenda...We have a mandate to look into massacres and we are looking at Daraya."

She was referring to a town southwest of Damascus where some 320 bodies, including women and children, were found in late August in houses and basements, according to activists who said most had been killed "execution-style" by troops in house-to-house raids.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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