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Published: Tuesday December 3, 2013 MYT 1:35:02 AM
Updated: Tuesday December 3, 2013 MYT 1:36:12 AM

U.N. rights chief condemns North Korean arrest of U.S. war veteran

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay attends a news conference at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva December 2, 2013. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay attends a news conference at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva December 2, 2013. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay on Monday condemned North Korea's detention of an 85-year-old American and said she was checking a report of recent mass executions in the country.

Merrill Edward Newman, a veteran of the Korean War, was detained on October 26 at the end of a tourist visit to North Korea, which is still technically at war with the United States and South Korea.

Asked if North Korea, which is also known as Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), had acted legally by detaining somebody it regards as a prisoner of war, Pillay, a former U.N. war crimes judge, said she opposed its action.

"Like everyone else I'm extremely shocked that this octogenarian has been forcibly held back in DPRK and, having served as an ordinary soldier, now making an apology for the military acts of his country," she said at a news conference.

Pillay said she was also troubled by reports in a South Korean newspaper of mass executions.

"We are trying to verify these reports," she said.

Scrutiny of North Korea's human rights record has been stepped up this year with the establishment of an independent U.N. commission of inquiry, due to report in March and tasked with gathering testimony about possible crimes against humanity. North Korean exiles have given testimony at public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington.

North Korea, which has been ruled for almost two years by Kim Jong-un, the third generation of the autocratic Kim dynasty, has refused to cooperate with the inquiry.

(Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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