The United Nations has a secret list of top Syrian officials who could face investigation for crimes against humanity carried out by Syria's security forces against government opponents, a panel of U.N. human rights experts said Thursday.
The U.N. experts indicated the list goes as high as President Bashar Assad but declined to say exactly which or how many names are on it.
Thousands of Syrians have died in the Assad regime's crackdown since March and the panel, citing what it called a reliable source, said at least 500 children are among the dead.
"A reliable body of evidence exists that, consistent with other verified circumstances, provides reasonable grounds to believe that particular individuals, including commanding officers and officials at the highest levels of government, bear responsibility for crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations," said the report by the U.N.-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.
It said the panel gave the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay a sealed envelope containing the names of these people for future investigations by "competent authorities." It didn't say who these investigating authorities might be, but Pillay herself has previously called for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The panel led by Brazilian professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said its list also identifies some armed opposition cells thought to have committed gross abuses.
Experts said the list is likely to be more of a deterrent against further abuses than a direct threat to the Assad regime. Syria isn't a member of the ICC so its jurisdiction doesn't apply there, and Russia would likely block any moves in the U.N. Security Council to refer the country to the Hague-based tribunal.
But Andrea Bianchi, a professor of international law at Geneva's Graduate Institute, said anyone on the U.N. list might still be arrested and prosecuted if they traveled from Syria to a country that has signed up to the international court.
"Personally, if I were on that list I would worry," he said.
Human rights group Amnesty International urged that the list be kept secret to prevent suspects from being tipped off.
"If in the future there is to be any potential to issue sealed arrest warrants the list has to remain confidential," said Stephanie Barbour, coordinator of the group's campaign for international justice.
The language of the report _ which is expected to be debated at a special meeting of the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva next week _ also provides specific support for international military intervention in Syria, said Bianchi.
Last year, the U.N. Security Council invoked "the responsibility to protect" when it established a no-fly zone over Libya. Russia and China abstained from that decision and subsequently criticized Western governments' interpretation of the U.N. mandate, which led to a months-long NATO bombing campaign against Libyan military facilities.
Still, regional coalitions could invoke the principle to launch limited military action against Syria outside of a U.N. framework.
"One of the triggers for the responsibility to protect is for crimes against humanity to be committed in a country," said Bianchi.
Yakin Erturk, a women's rights expert from Turkey who was also on the panel, said that encouraging foreign military intervention in Syria was not the U.N. experts' intention.
Instead, she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview, the panel suggested that an international peace conference be held as soon as possible to prevent further bloodshed.
Outside pressure has been building on Assad's government to halt its violent suppression of the opposition. Earlier this week the International Committee of the Red Cross called for temporary cease-fires so it could reach those trapped and wounded in the worst-affected areas.
But human rights groups say the violence is only increasing, with dozens dying every day from government shelling of cities like Homs, a rebel stronghold.
The U.N. panel was denied entry to Syria by the government, which accused it of ignoring official information and exceeding its mandate. The panel instead gathered much of its information from sources outside the country, including human rights activists and Syrian army defectors.
The report claims the ruling Baath Party's National Security Bureau was responsible for translating government policies into military operations that led to the systematic arrest or killing of civilians.
It says the four main intelligence and security agencies reporting directly to Assad _ Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, the General Intelligence Directorate and the Political Security Directorate _ "were at the heart of almost all operations."
The report details how businessmen helped hire and arm informal pro-government militias known as the Shabbiha.
"In a number of operations, the commission documented how Shabbiha members were strategically employed to commit crimes against humanity and other gross violations," it said.
The report also identifies 38 detention centers "for which the commission documented cases of torture and ill-treatment since March 2011."
Armed opposition groups, loosely connected under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, also committed some gross human rights abuses, the panel said. It cited the torture and execution of soldiers or suspected pro-government militia members.
But such actions were "not comparable in scale and organization with those carried out by the state," it added.
Full U.N. panel report: http://bit.ly/z4PwsH
Frank Jordans can be contacted on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/wirereporter