'Immediate ceasefire' urged in Syria

There needs to be an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria, the UN human rights chief has declared, saying the situation has deteriorated rapidly as the Syrian government steps up its onslaught against the opposition.

Navi Pillay's remarks at an emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland, came amid unconfirmed reports that French reporter Edith Bouvier and British photographer Paul Conroy, wounded in Syrian army attacks on Homs, have both been smuggled to safety in neighbouring Lebanon.

Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said during Tuesday's debate that the world has to take action to prevent Syrian security forces from continuing their bombardments and other attacks against civilians, which she said had resulted in "countless atrocities".

She also urged Syria to end all fighting, allow international monitors to enter the country and give unhindered access for aid agencies to enter Homs and other besieged cities.

The appeal prompted a bitter response from Syria's ambassador to the UN offices in Geneva, who accused the 47-nation (UNHRC) of promoting terrorism in his country.

Before leaving the room, Fayssal al-Hamwi said the urgent meeting would only prolong the crisis in Syria.

"The call for holding the session is part of a pre-established plan," he said. "It is aimed at attacking the Syrian state and its institutions under the pretext of humanitarian needs."

The UN on Tuesday said "well over 7,500 people" have been killed in Syria due to the government's 11-month crackdown on protesters, raising its previous estimated death toll by more than 2,000.

"There are credible reports that the death toll now often exceeds 100 civilians a day, including many women and children," UN under-secretary-general for political affairs Lynn Pascoe told the UN Security Council. 

Foreign minister Alain Juppe said France is working on a new UN security council resolution that would call for an "immediate ceasefire" in Syria and "access for humanitarian aid".

"I solemnly ask Russia and China not to block this new resolution," he said before legislators on Tuesday.

'Unspeakable violations'

Participating in Tuesday's debate, a senior US diplomat, in remarks apparently aimed at Russia, said the time had come for nations to stop all financial and material support to the Syrian government.

Russia has long sold arms to Syria and, together with China, has repeatedly used its Security Council veto to block international action on Syria.

"None can deny that Bashar al-Assad and his criminal cohort are waging a brutal campaign of slaughter, bombardment, torture, and arrest that already has murdered thousands of women, men and children, with more killed each day," Esther Brimmer, an assistant secretary of state, said.

"Without a halt to the killing and a guarantee of immediate humanitarian access, this despicable regime will murder many more before this heinous chapter in Syria's history is over."

Pillay, in her address, cited the report of a UN expert panel last week, which concluded that Syrian government officials were responsible for "crimes against humanity" committed by security forces against opposition members.

The crimes included shelling civilians, executing deserters and torturing detainees. Some opposition groups, too, had committed gross abuses, it said.

The panel has compiled a confidential list of top-level Syrian officials who could face prosecution over the atrocities.

Pillay reiterated her call for Syria to be referred to the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) "in the face of the unspeakable violations that take place every moment".

"More than at any other time, those committing atrocities in Syria have to understand that the international community will not stand by and watch this carnage and that their decisions and the actions they take today ultimately will not go unpunished," she said.

Members of the UNHRC are expected to pass a resolution this week condemning "widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities".

A draft resolution supported by many Arab and Western countries says the Syrian government's use of heavy artillery and tanks to attack civilian areas has contributed to the deaths of thousands.

While the resolution is not expected to include a reference to the ICC referral, diplomats have indicated that this issue will be revisited next month.