GENEVA (AP) -- There needs to be an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Syria, the U.N. human rights chief declared Tuesday, saying the situation has deteriorated rapidly as the Assad regime steps up its onslaught against the opposition.
Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the world has to take action to prevent Syrian security forces from continuing their bombardments and other attacks against civilians, which she said had resulted in "countless atrocities."
Speaking at an urgent meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Pillay urged Syria to end all fighting, allow international monitors to enter the country and give unhindered access for aid agencies to enter Homs and other embattled cities.
The appeal prompted a bitter riposte from Syria's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, who accused the 47-nation council of promoting terrorism in his country.
Before walking out of the room, Fayssal al-Hamwi said Tuesday's meeting would only prolong the crisis in Syria.
"The call for holding the session is part of a pre-established plan," he said. "It is aimed at attacking the Syrian state and its institutions under the pretext of humanitarian needs."
The United Nations has estimated at least 5,400 people have been killed since the uprising began in March, but anti-government activists put the current figure at over 8,000.
A senior U.S. diplomat said the time had come for nations to stop all financial and material support to President Bashar Assad's regime -- a dig at Russia, which has long sold arms to Damascus and together with China has repeatedly used its Security Council veto to block international action on Syria.
"None can deny that Bashar al-Assad and his criminal cohort are waging a brutal campaign of slaughter, bombardment, torture, and arrest that already has murdered thousands of women, men and children, with more killed each day," said Esther Brimmer, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs.
"Without a halt to the killing and a guarantee of immediate humanitarian access, this despicable regime will murder many more before this heinous chapter in Syria's history is over," she said.
Pillay cited the report of a U.N. expert panel last week, which concluded that Syrian government officials were responsible for "crimes against humanity" committed by security forces against opposition members. The crimes included shelling civilians, executing deserters and torturing detainees. Some opposition groups, too, had committed gross abuses, it said.
The panel has compiled a confidential list of top-level Syrian officials who could face prosecution over the atrocities.
Pillay reiterated her call for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court "in the face of the unspeakable violations that take place every moment."
"More than at any other time, those committing atrocities in Syria have to understand that the international community will not stand by and watch this carnage and that their decisions and the actions they take today ultimately will not go unpunished," she said.
Members of the council are expected to pass a resolution Tuesday condemning "widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities."
A draft resolution supported by many Arab and Western nations says the Syrian regime's use of heavy artillery and tanks to attack civilian areas has contributed to the deaths of thousands.
While the resolution is not expected to include a reference to the ICC referral, diplomats have indicated that this issue will be revisited next month.
Frank Jordans can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/wirereporter