GENEVA - The top United Nations human rights body condemned Syria on Friday for using deadly force against peaceful protesters and launched an investigation into killings and other alleged crimes.

The 47-member forum, which held an emergency session at US request, endorsed a US-sponsored resolution by 26 votes to 9 with 7 abstentions.

"Member states came together to condemn the brutal tactics used by the Assad regime to silence peaceful dissent," US human rights ambassador Eileen Donahoe said in a statement.

The urgency of holding the special session was "underlined by the disturbing reports today that the regime has continued its violent crackdown in towns across Syria," she added.

Syrian forces killed 15 people when they fired on thousands of protesters trying to enter the southern city of Deraa, the heart of a six-week uprising against President Bashar Assad, a medical source said on Friday.

Five delegations -- including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and Bahrain -- were absent for the vote which came after heated debate and behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to some watering down of the text.

"In general it is a good result, we knew it would be a compromise," Radwan Ziadah, a Syrian exile who heads the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, told Reuters.

"At the same time, the countries who were absent was very telling. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan, four Arab countries, this is very telling, it tells you how much the Syrian regime is isolated. This very important step for us," added Ziadah, a visiting scholar at George Washington University who came to Geneva for the session.

A Syrian rights group said this week at least 500 civilians had been killed since unrest broke out in Deraa in mid-March. Authorities dispute the death toll.

Amnesty International said that Syrian forces were committing grave violations with total impunity and it voiced concern over the fate of hundreds of people held in custody.

"We have received harrowing first-hand testimony of torture and other ill-treatment, including severe beatings with sticks, rifle-butts and cables, electrocution and sexual assault, that has been meted out on detainees, some of them children," Peter Splinter, Amnesty's representative in Geneva, told the Council.

NAMING AND SHAMING

Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ghana and Zambia were among key swing states supporting the Western resolution.

But China, Russia and Pakistan voted against it, denouncing meddling in Syria's internal affairs and accusing the council of double standards.

"My country has always believed that 'naming and shaming' is an approach which is counterproductive," Pakistani ambassador Zamir Akram told the gathering.

"This will only complicate the situation of human rights in Syria and increase tensions in the country," China's envoy warned before the vote.

The United States will announce new sanctions on Friday against Syria's main intelligence agency and two relatives of Assad, two US officials in Washington said.

"Opening live fire, sending in snipers and tanks to quell demonstrations is unacceptable," Donahoe told reporters earlier.

Donahoe, referring to Syria's controversial bid to win election to the council on May 20, said: "Governments that turn guns on their own people have no place in this chamber."

Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, Syria's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, defended Syrian forces saying they were showing "maximum self-restraint to avoid victims among innocent civilians."

Some 60 officers and soldiers had been killed in the violence, he said.

Britain and France condemned Syria's crackdown and said Syria had no place in the forum. "The appropriate response to the protests is reform, not repression," British ambassador Peter Gooderham said.

Human Rights Watch called for the Arab League to withdraw its support for Syria's candidacy to the rights forum.

"Now that the Syrian government is under investigation by the Human Rights Council, electing Syria to the Council would be like inviting the accused to sit in with the jury," said Philippe Bolopion of the New York-based group.

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