Concerns about children caught up in the Syrian conflict deepened yesterday as a United Nations human rights envoy described the "horrendous" incarceration and torture of youngsters by the Syrian government, days after the UN said it had unconfirmed reports of child soldiers fighting for the opposition.
Navi Pillay said she believed there was sufficient evidence for President Bashar al-Assad to be referred to the International Criminal Court because human rights abuses, including the targeting of children, must have involved complicity at "the highest level".
"They have gone for the children, for whatever purpose, in large numbers," she told the BBC. "It is just horrendous. Children shot in the knees, held together with adults in really inhumane conditions, denied medical treatment for their injuries, either held as hostages or as sources of information."
On Monday, the UN's special representative for children and armed conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, said she had received reports that the opposition Free Syrian Army had used child soldiers, but they had yet to be verified.
"The widespread detention of children by the Syrian government and their mistreatment is shocking," said Nadim Houry, a Beirut-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, which has documented Syrian children as young as 13 being held in solitary confinement.
Meanwhile, on the eve on an Arab League summit, regional foreign ministers met in Baghdad to discuss a draft resolution on Syria.
Damascus said it would reject any plan, citing its suspension from the League in November. "We will not deal with any new Arab initiative on any level," said a government spokesman, Jihad Makdissi.
Syria has, says the UN, accepted a peace plan from the joint UN-Arab League special envoy, Kofi Annan. But the news has been greeted with scepticism by Western diplomats as Damascus is yet to confirm its agreement.
Mr Annan, the former UN secretary-general will travel to Iran next week to discuss the initiative, which includes a call for a ceasefire by both sides, but gives no timetable for a transfer of power.