GENEVA (Reuters) - Syria said on Friday that a national investigation was under way into killings, including those of 1,100 security forces, but denied allegations that loyalist forces had shot soldiers refusing to fire on protesters.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said that only when Syria’s own investigation was completed could it consider letting in an international commission of inquiry, set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Syrian authorities have cracked down hard on pro-democracy protests demanding an end to 41 years of Assad family rule that were inspired by popular uprisings that have toppled Arab leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya this year.
More than 2,900 have been killed in Syria since unrest began in March, the United Nations said on Thursday.
“I would like to assure the international community that those who committed violations of human rights will be held to account,” Mekdad told reporters in Geneva.
“If our internal process is finished, we shall definitely study the possibility of receiving the human rights commission (of inquiry),” he said, declining to set a date.
Mekdad led a senior Syrian delegation to the 47-member body that examined its record in a three-hour debate on Friday as part of its regular review of all U.N. member states.
In a speech pledging democratic reforms, he also accused foreign powers of arming demonstrators and the media of waging a propaganda war against President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
More than 1,100 security personnel have been killed in the unrest, up from the government’s previous toll of 700, he said.
“I hope you will give us time, reform cannot be done when the Syrian people are being killed by extremist terrorist groups every day,” he told the talks.
A U.N. spokesman said on Friday that the names of some security forces were on a U.N. list of 2,900 documented deaths.
An initial U.N. team of investigators, in a report in August, said that there may be grounds for prosecuting Syrian officials for crimes against humanity. It cited allegations that loyalist forces killed soldiers refusing to fire on protesters.
“It is a big lie, these allegations,” Mekdad told reporters.
After six months of peaceful protests, some army deserters and dissidents have taken up arms, prompting military operations against them, especially in areas bordering Turkey and Jordan.
There had been no shelling of civilians and tanks were only used to protect security forces from violence, Mekdad said.
Syrian activists who attended the debate voiced outrage.
“Unfortunately the same propaganda as on Syrian TV has been repeated here. They say they have nothing to hide, then why not allow any fact-finding mission or commission of inquiry into the country?,” Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, told reporters.
“They know exactly that if they allow the commission in, it will have to meet with victims and families, and request to go to prisons to see the high number of people there,” he added.
More than 30,000 have been arrested during the unrest, many detained in schools and soccer fields, according to Ziadeh.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which began its first prison visits ever in Syria on September 4, has visited only Adra Central Prison in Damascus so far, a spokeswoman said.
During the U.N. debate, British, French and U.S. envoys called on Syria to halt executions, arbitrary detentions, torture and enforced disappearances of civilians.
Betty King, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, said: “The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the Syrian government’s gross violations of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of its people and its continued violent and deadly repression of peaceful protests.”
Iran and Russia joined Cuba in praising reforms announced by Assad, including the lifting of an emergency law and holding of local elections due in December.
“We are opposed to naming and shaming,” China’s envoy said. The U.N. Security Council failed to condemn Syria on Tuesday after Russia and China vetoed a European-drafted resolution.
Sergio Pinheiro, a Brazilian heading the three-member U.N. investigation, had hoped to meet senior Syrian officials in Geneva this week to seek permission to enter the country.
“We are in an expectation mode ... But my patience is limited,” Pinheiro told Reuters shortly before the debate.
The team is due to issue a report by the end of November.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alistair Lyon