GENEVA - Syrians in "leadership positions" who may be responsible for war crimes have been identified, along with units accused of perpetrating them, United Nations investigators said on Monday.
Both government forces and armed rebels are committing war crimes, including killings and torture, and spreading terror among civilians in a nearly two-year-old conflict, they said.
The investigators' latest report, covering the six months to mid-January, was based on 445 interviews conducted abroad with victims and witnesses, as they have not been allowed into Syria.
The independent team, led by Brazilian Paulo Pinheiro, called on the UN Security Council to "act urgently to ensure accountability" for grave violations, possibly by referring the violators to the International Criminal Court for prosecution.
"The ICC is the appropriate institution for the fight against impunity in Syria. As an established, broadly supported structure, it could immediately initiate investigations against authors of serious crimes in Syria," the 131-page report said.
It added: "Individuals may also bear criminal responsibility for perpetuating the crimes identified in the present report. Where possible, individuals in leadership positions who may be responsible were identified alongside those who physically carried out the acts."
Karen Konig AbuZayd, one of the four commissioners on the team of some two dozen experts, told Reuters: "We have information suggesting people who have given instructions and are responsible for government policy. People who are in the leadership of the military, for example."
"It is the first time we have mentioned the ICC directly. The Security Council needs to come together and decide whether or not to refer the case to the ICC. I am not optimistic."
But its third list of suspects, building on lists drawn up in the past year, remains secret. It will be entrusted to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, when its current mandate expires at the end of March, the report said.
Pillay, a former judge at the ICC, said on Saturday that Syrian President Bashar Assad should be probed for war crimes and called for immediate action by the international community, including possible military intervention.
War crimes abound, but no chemical weapons
"Government forces and affiliated militias have committed extra-judicial executions, a grave breach of international human rights law and constituting the war crime of murder. Where murder was committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population, with knowledge of that attack, it is a crime against humanity," the UN report said.
"Syrian armed forces have implemented a strategy that uses shelling and sniper fire to kill, maim, wound and terrorize the civilian inhabitants of areas that have fallen under anti-government armed group control," the report said. It also mentioned that government forces had used cluster bombs, but it found no credible evidence of either side using chemical arms.
Rebel forces fighting to topple Assad in the protracted and increasingly sectarian conflict have committed war crimes including murder, torture, hostage-taking and using children under age 15 in hostilities, the UN report said.
"They continue to endanger the civilian population by positioning military objectives inside civilian areas," it said, with rebel snipers causing "considerable civilian casualties".