June 25, 2012 / 1:03 PM / 7 years ago

U.N. rights investigator in Syria for first talks: sources

GENEVA (Reuters) - A top U.N. human rights investigator has been holding talks in Damascus with senior Syrian officials to pave the way for an investigation into atrocities in the country, U.N. and diplomatic sources said on Monday.

It is the first time Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro has been granted permission to enter Syria since his team was set up in September by the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“He is trying to pave the way for us to be able to go into the country,” a U.N. source told Reuters in Geneva. “We need to go before September when our final report is to be submitted.”

In reports based on hundreds of interviews with witnesses, survivors and refugees, the team has accused Syrian forces of committing crimes against humanity, including executions and torture. It has also accused rebels of carrying out atrocities.

Pinheiro, a veteran U.N. rights investigator acting in an independent capacity, arrived on the unannounced trip to Damascus late on Saturday after securing a visa from the Syrian diplomatic mission in Geneva, diplomatic sources said.

He has met deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad and is due to return to Geneva on Tuesday, a day before presenting the team’s latest report to the 47-member rights forum, they said. It was not immediately clear what other appointments he had.

CRIMINAL PROSECUTION?

The Council, at an emergency session held on June 1, condemned Syria for a massacre of at least 108 people in the Houla region and called for the U.N. investigators to identify the perpetrators and gather evidence for possible prosecution.

Syria has accused “terrorists” of carrying out the Houla massacre, its term for anti-government rebels leading a 16-month revolt against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

The U.N. team announced last February it had drawn up a confidential list of Syrian officials and commanding officers suspected of murder, abductions and torture. It also identifies armed militants linked to abuses.

The detailed catalogue of abuses and secret list could be the basis for prosecutions by the International Criminal Court (ICC), the U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Hague.

Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, reiterated her call on Monday for the Security Council to refer the case of Syria to the prosecutor of the ICC.

“Its use of heavy weapons and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas cannot be justified and must cease immediately. These attacks may amount to crimes against humanity and other international crimes,” Pillay, a former ICC judge, said in a speech read out on her behalf to the Security Council.

Syria appears to have agreed to allow Pinheiro access after his team’s report last month contained more allegations of gross human rights violations by the rebel side, U.N. sources said.

“It is a positive signal that they finally accepted to allow them in. But between now and Wednesday what can he (Pinheiro) achieve?” one Arab diplomat said.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay editing by Andrew Roche

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