The Syrian regime is targeting, torturing and capturing children, according to the United Nations’ human rights chief.

In an interview with the BBC, Navi Pillay said Wednesday one of the most shocking developments in the year-long crackdown against dissidents is the roundup of hundreds by Syrian forces.

"They've gone for the children — for whatever purposes — in large numbers. Hundreds detained and tortured …" Pillay said in the interview. "Children shot in the knees; held together with adults in really inhumane conditions; denied medical treatment for their injuries; either held as hostages or held as sources of information or sheer brutality of this whole clampdown."

Pillay said the action seems to be "systematic and targeted" and believes there is enough evidence to refer Syria and its leader, President Bashar al-Assad, to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

in-300-pillay-cp

Navi Pillay says there is now enough evidence to refer Syria's leadership to the International Criminal Court. (Associated Press)

"There has been quite a body of evidence building up with the UN inquiries," added Pillay's spokesman, Rupert Colville.

During an interview via Skype from Geneva, Colville mentioned several reported incidents, including the torture and killing of a 13-year-old-boy and the shooting of a two-year-old girl by a sniper.

"The case of a 13-year-old who was tortured to death and shot …[included] really horrific pictures of his body sent back to his parents," Colville said. "In some cases we have pretty strong video evidence, and also the UN reports [have]

quite strict technology to put credence into something before you put it into such a report."

Colville said it is likely the torture of children is meant to deter opposition protests.

However, dissident forces are not without possible legal worries of their own. There have also been various reports that the Free Syria Army — led by defectors from Syria’s security forces and government — has begun recruiting child soldiers to fight.

Child soldiers captured by government forces should not be held accountable, he said.

"The Syrian government should treat any such child, according to the circumstances, with sympathy and with an effort to rehabilitate the child marked to be a fighter," he said. "No child should be tortured."

On Tuesday Syria accepted UN envoy Kofi Annan's a six-point peace plan that seeks to bring an end to the violence that has been going on for more than a year. But critics of the regime were skeptical about the Syria’s true intentions and commitment to the plan.

News of the peace plan came on the heels of the UN’s announcement it had raised of the civilian casualty estimate to 9,000.

Opposition strongholds fall

In Syria, government forces have captured a northern town from rebels after four days of fighting in which more than 40 people were killed and homes were burned down, activists said Wednesday.

It was the latest in a string of opposition strongholds to fall to ruthless assaults by the better-equipped Syrian military. Activists also reported clashes between Syrian army units and rebels in the country's centre and east.

The Local Co-ordination Committees network said there were many unidentified corpses and wounded people in the streets of Saraqeb, the northern opposition town that the military seized after a four-day offensive that began Sunday.

As in other towns and cities recaptured recently by the army, Syrian troops left behind a trail of death and destruction.

The LCC and another activist group, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said hundreds of homes and shops in Saraqeb had been pillaged and burned, and most of the town's residents had fled along with the rebels.

Activist Fadi al-Yassin in the northern province of Idlib said the army was now in full control of Saraqeb. He said army defectors known as the Free Syrian Army resisted on the first day but then pulled out, fearing that they would bring more destruction on the  town.

"They fled because there was no way they were going to be able to face the regime's huge military force," he said by satellite phone.  

Elsewhere, three Syrian soldiers were killed in clashes with rebels in the central province of Homs Wednesday. Clashes were also reported in Deir el-Zour province along the Iraqi border.

Arab ministers want Syria to stop crackdown

Arab countries, divided over how to stop Syria's bloodshed, plan to call for the Syrian regime to halt its crackdown on civilians, let in humanitarian groups and free detainees, according to recommendations Wednesday by foreign ministers preparing for a summit this week.

Even before Arab heads of state began their Thursday summit in the Iraqi capital, Syria sharply rejected any measures they take. A Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdessi, said Damascus would "not deal with any initiative" that might come out of the 22-member Arab League.

The rejection reflected Damascus' refusal to work with the League after the pan-Arab body suspended Syria's membership as punishment for the bloody crackdown on protesters demanding the ouster of President Bashar Assad. 

Arab countries are divided over how aggressively to intervene in Syria's turmoil. Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are believed to want to start providing weapons to Syria's rebels and even carve out a "safe area" inside the country that the opposition can use as a staging ground.

Iraq, the host of this week's summit, is more cautious. Baghdad's Shia-dominated government is close to Iran, al-Assad's closest ally, and is wary of hurting those ties. On Wednesday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told Arab foreign ministers gathered in Baghdad that his country rejects foreign intervention in Syria but supports what he called the aspirations of the Syrian people.

"We stress our full support to the aspirations and legitimate demands of the Syrian people to freedom and democracy and their right to determine their future, choose their leaders and the peaceful transition for power," said Zebari, a Kurd.

Cease-fire call

Zebari sounded more assertive at a news conference, saying Iraq "could no longer remain neutral" in the face of the violence in Syria, its neighbour.

Arab foreign ministers on Wednesday were working out recommendations for the heads of state to approve when they meet here Thursday. According to draft recommendations obtained by The Associated Press, the summit would call on Assad to implement a cease-fire, let in humanitarian aid and release all those detained the past year. It also demands he allow peaceful protests, withdraw army troops from urban centers and implement previous Arab League proposals to end the conflict.

Shia-ruled Iraq is hosting the summit to show that it has emerged from years of turmoil and American occupation. But a massive security operation in Baghdad mirrors fears that Sunni militants could try and disrupt the meetings.

With files from The Associated Press