A Syrian military tank patrols the flashpoint city of Homs in August 2011
A Syrian military tank patrols the flashpoint city of Homs in August 2011. Syria's military and security forces have committed crimes against humanity in their brutal crackdown on anti-regime protesters, UN-appointed investigators said on Monday. © Joseph Eid - AFP/File
A Syrian military tank patrols the flashpoint city of Homs in August 2011
Lucy Christie, AFP
Last updated: November 28, 2011

UN investigators: Syrian forces committed crimes against humanity

Damascus on Monday lashed out at the Arab League for ignoring "terrorists" on Syrian territory in its decision to impose crippling sanctions, which it said marked a declaration of "economic war."

The broadside came even as UN-appointed investigators accused Syrian forces of crimes against humanity, while rights groups said at least nine more civilians were killed across the country.

The "Arab sanctions are a declaration of economic war on Syria," Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told a news conference during which a gruesome video was shown of what was described as a "mass grave of security force martyrs."

"I apologise for these horrific images, but at the same time I offer them to the Arab League ministerial committee members who still continue to refuse the presence of these armed groups," said Muallem.

"The Arabs don't want to admit the presence in Syria of groups of armed terrorists who are committing these crimes, abductions and attacks on public places," he said after tens of thousands of regime supporters rallied against the pan-Arab bloc.

Muallem said his government had opened all avenues in talks with the Arab League to end bloodshed in his country, but said that "they have closed all these windows" of opportunity.

He called for dialogue to bring about national reconciliation, saying Syria was ready to accept Russia, its traditional ally, as a mediator.

"The Arab League's position is clear: they want a dialogue in Cairo, a national unity government... and this is rejected.

"But a real dialogue must lead to national reconciliation. If Russia wishes, we welcome it. We think that a dialogue is a solution to the crisis."

The Arab League voted on Sunday to slap sweeping sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad's government over its crackdown on anti-regime protests -- the first time the bloc has enforced punitive measures of such magnitude on one of its own members.

The sanctions include an immediate ban on transactions with Damascus and the central bank and a freeze on Syrian government assets in Arab countries.

They also bar Syrian officials from visiting Arab countries and call for a suspension of all flights to Arab states to be implemented on a date to be set next week.

An Arab League official in Cairo said the bloc's chief Nabil al-Arabi offered to "review all measures" against Syria if it agreed to a plan to send in observers.

Arabi also indicated, in a letter to Muallem, that the organisation would be willing to modify the observers' mission.

In earlier measures over its bloody crackdown, Assad's regime has also been subjected to a raft of Western sanctions, led by the United States and European Union.

And diplomats in Brussels said the EU was set to tighten its measures even further, targeting Syria's oil and financial sectors to deprive the regime of more sources of funding.

EU foreign ministers meeting on Thursday would ban exports of energy industry equipment, trading in Syrian bonds and selling of software that could be used to monitor dissidents, among other financial measures.

But Muallem said Syria would weather the sanctions thanks to counter-measures.

"I reassure you that we have withdrawn 95 or 96 percent of Syrian assets (from Arab countries)," he told reporters. "We must protect the interests of our people."

His remarks came after protesters waving Syrian flags and the colours of Russia and China -- which vetoed a UN Security Council resolution against Assad's regime last month -- thronged Sabaa Bahrat Square in Damascus.

"The people want Bashar al-Assad... We are your people, Bashar," sang the protesters. "We love you, we love you."

In order to cope, Assad's regime is also counting on neighbours Iraq and Lebanon, which voted against the sanctions at the 22-member Arab League along with Yemen.

Hezbollah, the Shiite group that dominates Lebanon's government, denounced the sanctions as "shameful" and a "dangerous precedent," warning the Arab bloc was becoming a tool for the Americans.

The United States and European Union later called on the Syrian government to "end violence immediately" and allow the prompt entry of international rights observers and journalists, in a joint statement issued in Washington.

Piling the pressure on Damascus, however, UN-appointed investigators said Syria's military and security forces have committed crimes against humanity in the crackdown.

Forces have murdered, raped and tortured demonstrators since the protests erupted in March, according to evidence gathered by the Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which interviewed 223 victims and witnesses.

"The commission is gravely concerned that crimes against humanity have been committed in different locations in the Syrian Arab Republic," it said in its report released in Geneva.

The panel said it "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."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces killed nine more civilians across the country on Monday, including six in Homs, adding to a UN estimate of over 3,500 people to have died in the unrest since March.

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