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Hillary Clinton: Syria's Assad could be labeled a war criminal

While shelling continues on Homs, it was confirmed journalist Paul Conroy, of the Sunday Times, who was wounded in the attack that killed reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, is safely out of Syria.  ITN's Tim Ewart reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday that an argument could be made that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is a war criminal.

"There would be an argument to be made that he would fit into that category," Clinton told a Senate committee hearing, responding to a question from Senator Lindsey Graham as to whether Assad could be called a war criminal.

But she added that using such labels "limits options to persuade leaders to step down from power."

Clinton was also asked whether she thought Assad was on his way out eventually. "I do," she said. "I just don't know how to define eventually."

Last week Clinton attended a "Friends of Syria" conference of Western and Arab powers in Tunis that urged Assad to stop the killing of civilians in his crackdown on a nearly year-old uprising against his rule.

Wounded British journalist smuggled out of Syria

But the outside world has proved powerless to halt the killing in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests has spawned an armed insurrection.

A U.N. panel has drawn up a list of Syrian officials who could be investigated for crimes against humanity as part of Assad's brutal crackdown on peaceful protests.

The U.S. also criticized Syria's envoy for storming out of an emergency U.N. meeting on the crisis in his country Tuesday, saying the walkout and a fiery speech that preceded it demonstrated the "delusional" nature of President Bashar Assad's regime.

Syria's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Fayssal al-Hamwi, accused members of the U.N. Human Rights Council of promoting terrorism and prolonging the crisis in his country by holding an urgent meeting on Syria.

"Anybody who heard the Syrian ambassador should be aware that his comments were borderline out of touch with reality," Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. representative to the 47-nation council, told reporters.

"I think it's a reflection to some extent of what's going on with the Assad regime itself, holding a referendum that is farcical and a mockery of democratic processes when they're in the midst of a humanitarian crisis of their own creation," she said. "I think the Syrian ambassador's comments were equally delusional."

Al-Hamwi took the floor shortly after the U.N.'s top human rights official called for an immediate cease-fire in Syria and unhindered access for aid agencies to deliver emergency supplies and evacuate the sick and wounded.

"We are convinced that the real aim behind holding this session today is to cover up for the violence and murder perpetrated by the armed groups against innocent civilians," Syria's ambassador told diplomats.

Calling it part of "a pre-established plan," al-Hamwi said the meeting was "aimed at attacking the Syrian state and its institutions under the pretext of humanitarian needs."

"We are not pretending that the human rights situation in Syria is perfect," he added. "We are aware that there is a regression in the quality of services usually provided by the government to the population by the regions facing violence. This is due to the armed groups that are using residential areas as bases."

As diplomats and government officials from 70 countries lined up to express their concern about the deteriorating situation in Syria, al-Hamwi announced that his delegation would withdraw from what he called "this sterile discussion."

Before storming out of the room, he denounced a planned resolution on Syria as "malicious and prejudiced."

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe says France is working on a new U.N. Security Council resolution that would call for an immediate ceasefire in Syria and humanitarian aid.

He says that shelling in the city of Homs, where two journalists were killed and at least two wounded last week, had reached "unbearable and criminal proportions."

Russia and China have consistently blocked Security Council efforts to back Arab League plans aimed at ending the Syrian conflict.

Juppe said the resolution "could stipulate an immediate ceasefire and access for humanitarian aid as well as renewing our support to the Arab League."

The U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe said Tuesday that "well over" 7,500 people have died in Syria violence and that there are "credible" reports that more than 100 civilians are dying in the country daily. Activists groups said Monday that the death toll for 11 months of unrest has now surpassed 8,000 people.

"Unfortunately, the international community has also failed in its duty to stop the carnage, and actions and inactions to date have seemed to encourage the regime in its believe that it has impunity to carry out the wanton destruction of its own civilians," Pascoe said.

Members of the Geneva-based council are expected to pass a resolution this week condemning "widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities."

A draft text 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.

Libya's Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib said he supported passing a firm resolution on Syria in the council.

"We hope that the Syrian people will have the same freedom and victory soon as the Libyan people are enjoying right now," he said.
Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, cited the report of a U.N. expert panel that concluded 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, the report 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.

Several countries backed her call for Syria to be referred to the ICC, a proposition made difficult by the fact that Syria's longtime ally Russia holds a veto in the U.N. Security Council, where such a move would have to be approved.

Esther Brimmer, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, told reporters that while it was up to the Syrian people to decide how to try those responsible for atrocities in Syria, the international community could assist by collecting evidence for future prosecutions.

Meanwhile, Tunisia offered on Tuesday to give Syrian President Bashar al-Assad political asylum if that helps to end a crackdown on the near-year-old uprising against his rule.

"Tunisia is ready in principle to grant political asylum to Bashar al-Assad and his family if this proposal will contribute to stopping the bloodshed," Adnen Monssar, an aide to President Moncef al-Marzouki, told Reuters.

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki suggested during the "Friends of Syria" conference of Western and Arab powers in Tunis last week that Russia, which has vetoed U.N. Security Council action against the Syrian regime, give Assad refuge. On Tuesday, his aide said Tunisia was willing to take him itself.

The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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