UN rights body extends Syria probe to March 2014

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GENEVA (AP) - Dozens of nations agreed Friday to extend a U.N. probe of human rights abuses in Syria's civil war for another year, signaling their grave concern about the escalating violence _ and their intent to prosecute abuses.

By a vote of 41-1, the U.N.'s top human rights body, based in Geneva, reauthorized its panel of four independent experts to continue their investigation of suspected war crimes and other abuses until March 14, a half year longer than had been originally proposed. Only Venezuela was opposed. Abstaining were Ecuador, India, Kazakhstan, Philippines and Uganda.

But the overwhelming agreement among supporters in the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council _ among them the U.S., Germany, Libya, Pakistan, Qatar and United Arab Emirates _ showed strong support for the work of the expert panel, which began its investigation in August 2011.

The evidence they are gathering will help ensure that all those responsible for human rights violations and abuses will be held to account," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. "The deteriorating situation in Syria and worsening human rights violations and abuses deserve the strongest possible condemnation."

Earlier this month, the panel led by Brazilian diplomat and scholar Paulo Sergio Pinheiro told reporters in Geneva that it is collecting evidence on 20 massacres in Syria, a reflection of the civil war's growing brutality. The United Nations estimates more than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which started two years ago as a popular uprising against President Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime.

The massacres include three in the central city of Homs since December, Pinheiro said, and are indicative of the increasingly destructive standoff between Assad's forces and the anti-government rebels, with both sides resorting to intentional mass killings of civilians in violation of international humanitarian law and the growing recruitment of child soldiers.

Friday's resolution calls for Syrians to make their own justice while "underlining the relevance of referrals to the appropriate international criminal justice mechanism under appropriate circumstances." But only the Security Council, the U.N.'s most powerful arm, can refer cases for prosecution to the International Criminal Court.

The panel also has warned of the growing use of medical care as a tactic of war, with medical personnel and hospitals deliberately targeted and medical access denied on political and sectarian grounds. Both sides appear to be committing war crimes, panel member Vitit Muntarbhorn said, but evidence suggests that "government authorities have been involved more in regard to crimes against humanity."

Government forces have targeted civilians in bakery lines and funeral processions, the panel says, while anti-government rebels continue to use protected objects, such as mosques, as bases or for weapons storage. The violence on both sides has displaced several million Syrians, including more than 1 million refugees who have fled to bordering countries.

The panel has had almost no access to the ground in Syria, though it says it has conducted at least 1,500 interviews and exhaustively corroborated its findings with other sources. Lists of people suspected of human rights violations who could be prosecuted under international law are being kept secret by the U.N.'s top human rights official, Navi Pillay.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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