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Geneva (AFP) – Evidence has been uncovered in Syria that implicates President Bashar al-Assad and members of his inner circle in war crimes and crimes against humanity, a top UN official said Monday.

A UN probe into rights violations committed during 33 months of brutal conflict “has produced massive evidence … [of] very serious crimes, war crimes, crimes against humanity,” United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said. “The evidence indicates responsibility at the highest level of government, including the head of state.”

It is the first time evidence by a UN-mandated commission has directly implicated Assad in crimes committed during Syria’s civil war, which has killed an estimated 126,000 people, according to new figures released by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

The four-member UN investigative team, which has been probing rights violations since shortly after fighting broke out, has in the past accused both the Syrian regime and the rebels of war crimes.

For the first time however, they have now cobbled together a long and confidential list of suspected perpetrators.

With no access to Syria, the investigators had to rely on more than 2,000 interviews in the surrounding region or by phone or Skype for their reports.

The names “remain sealed until I am requested to furnish them to credible investigation,” Pillay told reporters in Geneva, adding that “it could be a national investigation or international investigation.”

She reiterated her call for the case to be handed over to the International Criminal Court in the Hague to ensure accountability.

“The scale of viciousness of the abuses being perpetrated by elements on both sides almost defies belief,” she said.

Pillay warned that efforts to destroy Syria’s massive chemical weapons stockpile should not distract from killings with conventional weapons, which have accounted for the vast majority of deaths in the conflict.

“This is my concern, that the inquiry into chemical weapons, which is utterly necessary, should not be used as a distraction from the fact that more than 100,000 people have been killed as the result of the use of conventional weapons,” she added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists, lawyers and doctors on the ground in Syria, said Monday it had documented 125,835 deaths in the conflict up to December 1.

The dead include 44,381 civilians, among them 6,627 children and 4,454 women.

According to a U.S.-Russia deal that headed off U.S. military strikes against Assad’s regime, Syria is to destroy its chemical arsenal by mid-2014.

While inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have sealed more than 1,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, the UN official charged with their destruction warned Monday the hardest part is yet to come.

Speaking at an annual meeting of OPCW member states in The Hague, Sigrid Kaag said that although Syria’s ability to make chemical weapons “has been rendered inoperable… the most complex and challenging work still lies ahead.”

“The removal of Syria’s chemical agents for destruction outside of its territory will require tremendous coordination and collective effort,” Kaag said.

Despite international consensus on destroying the chemicals outside war-wracked Syria, no country has volunteered to have them destroyed on its soil.

The OPCW on Saturday said the United States has offered to destroy Syria’s most dangerous chemical weapons on a vessel at sea through a process of hydrolysis.

On the military front, Syrian rebels on Monday moved into the center of the historic Christian town of Maalula after sending explosive-filled tyres hurtling down on security forces deployed there, a security source said.

The Observatory confirmed that rebels had seized part of the picturesque town — where a centuries-old Christian community still speaks the ancient language Aramaic — after five days of fighting.

The renewed clashes in the town come as the regime battles to gain control of a string of nearby strategic towns and villages along the Damascus-Homs highway north of the capital.

Elsewhere in the country, rebel fighters captured a weapons depot in the southern province of Deraa after several days of fighting, the Observatory said.

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