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UN chief lauds Obama diplomacy efforts as Syria conflict rages

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday welcomed President Barack Obama's plan to postpone using military force against Syria in favor of diplomacy to rid the Mideast nation of chemical weapons, this as a new UN report documented the persistence of the conflict's sheer brutality.

The 37-page report, issued by the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said a host of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including massacres, extrajudicial executions, torture, rape and kidnapping have been committed by both government forces and their sympathizers as well as opposition fighters in the 21/2-year-old civil war.

The report, which covered events occurring between May 15 and July 15, suggests that Syria's war is still raging apace despite international attention and condemnation, and after the deaths of more than 100,000 people and the displacement of millions.

The group's previous report, released in June, painted a similarly bleak picture.

But Ban was pleased to hear in Obama's words that a diplomatic route to the end of the conflict was gaining traction.

"The Secretary-General strongly welcomes the emergence of serious international discussions that could lead to an agreement in the Security Council to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons so as to prevent their use," said Farhan Haq, a spokesman for Ban. "The Secretary-General welcomes, therefore, President Obama's decision to take time to further explore this diplomatic opportunity to achieve this crucially important objective."

In his 15-minute speech Tuesday night, Obama said he was allowing a Russian plan to require Syria to surrender its chemical weapons to international monitoring to proceed before furthering plans to militarily strike Syria in retaliation for Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces' use of a chemical agent on civilians on Aug. 21.

Cellphone videos of dozens of people shaking uncontrollably, some with pinpoint pupils and others lying motionless and presumed dead, were circulated widely on social media shortly after the incident. But it is still unclear who carried out the attack, though Obama and others have said it must be the work of the Syrian forces.

"The confirmed use of chemical weapons would be an outrageous crime, for which there must be accountability and determined efforts to prevent any recurrence," Haq said at UN headquarters in New York.

Haq also said that a team of weapons experts that visited the suburbs of Damascus where the Aug. 21 attack occurred were examining samples in four locations in Europe, but that there is no timetable for when those results will be made available.

U.S., British and French officials believe Assad's forces launched nerve gas into those residential areas controlled by opposition groups and the weapons experts are trying to determine whether such an agent was used.

The commission's report, though, documented mostly interpersonal violence that was committed by both sides. It was based on 258 interviews and other evidence.

"Government and pro-government forces have continued to conduct widespread attacks on the civilian population, committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearance as crimes against humanity," it said. "They have laid siege to neighbourhoods and subjected them to indiscriminate shelling. Government forces have committed gross violations of human rights and the war crimes of torture, hostage-taking, murder, execution without due process, rape, attacking protected objects and pillage."

But opposition forces, who are composed of a variety of groups, including elements of al-Qaida, were also to blame, it said.

"Anti-government armed groups have committed war crimes, including murder, execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking and attacking protected objects," it said. "They have besieged and indiscriminately shelled civilian neighbourhoods."

The report urged world leaders to scale back military action to resolve the crisis.

"There is no military solution to this conflict," it said. "Those who supply arms create but an illusion of victory. A political solution founded upon tenets of the Geneva communiqué is the only path to peace."

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