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GENEVA (Reuters) - The main United Nations human rights body condemned the government of President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday for violations in Syria that it said may amount to crimes against humanity, and called for a halt to attacks on civilians.
The 47-member Geneva forum adopted a resolution brought by Gulf and Western countries with 37 states in favor and China, Cuba and Russia against. The U.S. human rights ambassador said these three countries "are on the wrong side of history."
The Human Rights Council strongly condemned "the widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities," including the deadly use of heavy artillery and tanks to attack residential areas.
Syria's delegation boycotted the emergency debate after its ambassador to the UN in Geneva stormed out on Tuesday.
"I think that the vote speaks for itself. There is an overwhelming international consensus on the human rights situation in Syria and the humanitarian crisis that has been created by the Assad regime," U.S. ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told Reuters TV.
"I think the isolation of China, Russia and Cuba is sad but it was expected. The meaning of this vote is almost as important for those three countries as it is for the Assad regime.
"They are on the wrong side of history."
The United States as well as nine Council members from the European Union (EU), including Britain and France, voted in favor of the text, which was also endorsed by Turkey.
EU High Representative Catherine Ashton said that the international community had sent "yet another unequivocal call" to Syrian authorities to halt abuses and address urgent needs.
"Every possible lever must be pulled to stop the violence and killing of civilians," she said in a statement.
It is the fourth time since April that the forum, which has moral authority but no legal force, has condemned Syria. There were three abstentions and four delegations did not vote.
Russian diplomat Vladimir Zheglov, rejected the text as "yet another example of one-sided, political approaches to the situation in Syria being pushed forward by some countries."
Elite government forces pounded a rebel bastion in Homs on Thursday in what appeared to be a final push on the opposition stronghold after more than three weeks of siege and bombardment, activists said.
The Council said Syrian violations included shelling that has killed "thousands of innocent civilians," executions, the killing and persecution of protesters, arbitrary detention and interference with access to medical care.
It voiced strong concern at the deteriorating humanitarian situation and called for food, medicines and fuel to reach besieged populations.
It was vital to ensure accountability for crimes "including those violations that may amount to crimes against humanity."
Syria's ally Iran defended the government and said it should be given "time and space" to implement the "sweeping reforms" it has promised.
"Coercive sanctions and interference in internal affairs of Syria, in particular unacceptable covert efforts by some specific countries to arm the opposition groups, would only lead to deepening the crisis with all its consequences to the whole region," Iran's ambassador Seyed Mohammad Reza Sajjadi said.
He warned that "threats of military intervention, sanctions or regime change" would complicate the situation.
Independent U.N. investigators, in a report issued on February 23, said Syrian forces have shot dead unarmed civilians, shelled residential areas and tortured wounded protesters in hospital on orders from the "highest level." [ID:nL5E8DN4RT]
The team said it had compiled a list of Syrian civil and military authorities suspected of international crimes.
"We will work to ensure that evidence of human rights violations and abuses committed by all forces in Syria continues to be gathered and securely stored so that those responsible for atrocities will be held accountable," Britain's ambassador Peter Gooderham told the talks on Thursday.
France's envoy Nicolas Niemtchinow told Reuters TV: "This resolution sends a really clear message to the authorities in Damascus because it makes it clear that there is no impunity and that those responsible of these ongoing crimes will be held responsible."
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Robert Woodward