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GENEVA (Reuters) - A United Nations commission of inquiry said on Monday Syrian military and security forces had committed crimes against humanity including murder, torture and rape, and the government of President Bashar al-Assad bore responsibility.
The panel, which interviewed 223 victims and witnesses including defectors, called on Syria to halt "gross human rights violations," release prisoners rounded up in mass arrests and allow access to media, aid workers and rights monitors.
"The commission has concluded, based on its findings, that members of the Syrian army and security forces have committed crimes again humanity in their repression of a largely civilian population in the context of a peaceful protest movement," Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the three-member panel, told a news conference.
The 39-page report to the U.N. Human Rights Council catalogues executions, torture, rapes including of children, arbitrary detentions and abductions carried out since March by Syrian forces quashing pro-democracy demonstrations while enjoying "systemic impunity" for their crimes.
"The commission therefore believes that orders to shoot and otherwise mistreat civilians originated from policies and directives issued at the highest levels of the armed forces and the government," it said.
More than 3,500 people have been killed in the violence, according to the United Nations, while activists say that up to 30,000 have been arrested, many kept in open-air stadiums.
"Reliable sources indicated that 256 children had been killed by state forces as of November 9," Pinheiro said.
One soldier testified that he had defected after witnessing the shooting of a two-year-old girl last August by an officer who said that "he did not want her to grow into a demonstrator."
The U.N. Security Council stopped short of taking action against Syria when China and Russia vetoed a resolution in October. After continuing international criticism of Assad's handling of the crisis, the Arab League approved sanctions against Syria on Sunday.
"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 after the U.N. report was published.
In a written response included in the U.N. report, Syria's mission to the United Nations said Syria was standing against U.S. "policies of occupation" and blamed the violence on "terrorist operations carried out by armed outlaws who are terrorizing our citizens" and trying to "divide the country along sectarian lines and incite civil war."
Syria refused access to the U.N. investigators, saying it was carrying out its own inquiry. But the U.N. report pointed the finger squarely at the government of Assad.
"In the Syrian Arab Republic, the high toll of dead and injured is the result of the excessive use of force by state forces in many regions," it said.
It called for protecting the Syrian population and for an international embargo on arms sales to Syria.
There had been "isolated instances" of violence by demonstrators, but the "majority of civilians were killed in the context of peaceful demonstrations," it said.
Syrian forces have used snipers and tanks to suppress the uprising, it said.
"Defectors from the military and security forces told the commission that they had received orders to shoot at unarmed protesters without warning," the report said.
Some soldiers who disobeyed these orders were shot by the security forces or by army snipers, it said.
Cases were documented of injured people taken to hospital and beaten and tortured during interrogation, it said. "Children were also tortured, some to death."
The panel declined to say where they had interviewed survivors and defectors.
Yakin Erturk, a panel member from Turkey, said: "Non-access to Syria does not mean non-access to information. We had access to doctors reports, X-rays, video footage."
Military and security forces used torture including electric shock and sexual torture, mainly on men and boys in custody, as a "tool to instill fear," the U.N. panel said.
"Testimonies were received from several men who stated that they had been anally raped with batons and that they had witnessed the rape of boys," it said.
"Detainees were also subjected to psychological torture, including sexual threats against them and their families, and by being forced to worship President al-Assad instead of their God," it said.
The inquiry, set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council last August, also called on the 47-member state forum to establish a special rapporteur or investigator on Syria.
The Geneva forum is expected to hold another special session on Syria, its third, on Friday, at the request of the European Union and other states, according to diplomats and U.N. sources.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Tom Miles and Peter Graff