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GENEVA (Reuters) - A confidential list of top Syrian officials suspected of ordering crimes against humanity including murder, abductions and torture has been given to the United Nations for possible future prosecution, U.N. investigators said on Thursday.
Syrian forces bent on crushing a popular uprising have shot dead unarmed women and children, shelled residential areas and tortured wounded protesters in hospital under orders from the "highest level" of army and government officials, the independent panel said in a report.
The three-member panel said that they had drawn up a secret list of names of commanding officers and officials alleged to be responsible for gross violations. The list, which also identifies armed opposition units tied to abuses, might help "future credible investigations by competent authorities."
"The list we have deposited with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is based on evidence we have collected since being appointed and covers the period from March 2011 to now," Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro who lead the team told Reuters.
Pinheiro, speaking by telephone from Sao Paolo, declined to say how many names the secret list contained or whether they included the names of ministers or President Bashar al-Assad.
"We're not a criminal investigative body or tribunal, it is not our mandate...One day a competent international body will deal with it," he told Reuters. "This is for the Syrian people to decide."
U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay -- whose office now has the sealed envelope containing the panel's list -- has previously said that the situation in Syria should be referred to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
"The commission received credible and consistent evidence identifying high- and mid-ranking members of the armed forces who ordered their subordinates to shoot at unarmed protesters, kill soldiers who refused to obey such orders, arrest persons without cause, mistreat detained persons and attack civilian neighborhoods with indiscriminate tanks and machinegun fire," investigators said in a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The commission of inquiry found that rebel forces led by the Free Syrian Army had also committed abuses including killings and abductions, "although not comparable in scale."
Syrian diplomats in Geneva were given the 72-page report on Wednesday, according to Pinheiro. "I don't have any comment from them for the time being," he said.
A January 23 letter from Syria's diplomatic mission in Geneva, printed in the report's annex, rejected as "totally false" allegations contained in the U.N.'s previous report in November that its forces were committing crimes against humanity. The Syrian letter accuses "armed terrorist groups" of such crimes.
Syrian tanks thrust into a rebel stronghold in the shattered city of Homs on Thursday. Rockets, shells and mortar rounds rained on the Baba Amro district, where armed insurgents are holed up with terrified civilians, for the 20th day in a row, activists said.
"It is an emergency situation and an interruption of fighting is absolutely necessary," Pinheiro said of Homs.
The U.N. team was not allowed into Syria but said it had interviewed 369 victims and witnesses in the country and abroad.
"Satellite imagery of areas where military and security forces were deployed, and related reported violations occurred, corroborated a number of witness accounts," it said.
Photographs, videos and some government documents were also examined by investigators.
Thousands of people, mainly civilians but also soldiers and defectors, have been killed during the crackdown, it said.
"Army snipers and Shabbiha gunmen posted at strategic points terrorized the population, targeting and killing small children, women and other unarmed civilians. Fragmentation mortar bombs were also fired into densely populated neighborhoods."
Some 6,399 civilians and 1,680 army defectors were killed in more than 11 months of violence in Syria through February 15, according to figures provided by the Violations Documentation Centre, a network of activists in the country and abroad quoted in the U.N. report.
Pinheiro said the group, which said more than 18,000 people were in detention as of February 15, was a "credible source."
"Security agencies continued to systematically arrest wounded patients in state hospitals and to interrogate them, often using torture, about their supposed participation in opposition demonstrations or armed activities," the report said.
The panel further said it had "documented evidence that sections of Homs Military Hospital and Al Ladikah State Hospital had been transformed into torture centers."
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich