By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Venezuelan security forces suspected of killing hundreds of demonstrators and alleged criminals enjoy immunity from prosecution, indicating that the rule of law is "virtually absent" in the country, the United Nations said on Friday.
The U.N. human rights office called on the government to bring perpetrators to justice and said it was sending its report to the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose prosecutor opened a preliminary investigation in February.
The U.N. report cited "credible, shocking" accounts of extrajudicial killings of young men during crime-fighting operations in poor neighbourhoods conducted without arrest warrants. Security forces would tamper with the scene so that there appeared to have been an exchange of fire, it said.
There was no immediate response from the government of President Nicolas Maduro to the report.
Critics say Maduro has used increasingly authoritarian tactics as the OPEC nation's economy has spiralled deeper into recession and hyperinflation, fuelling discontent and prompting hundreds of thousands to emigrate in the past year.
About 125 people died in anti-government protests last year.
Security forces were allegedly responsible for killing at least 46 of them, U.N. rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told a news briefing, adding: "Evidence has reportedly disappeared from case files."
Maduro says the opposition protests were aimed at overthrowing him and accuses the United States of directing an "economic war" against Venezuela.
"The failure to hold security forces accountable for such serious human rights violations suggests that the rule of law is virtually absent in Venezuela," said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. "The impunity must end."
Zeid called on the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday to set up an international commission of inquiry into alleged violations in Venezuela -- one of its 47 member states.
"The time has come for the Council to use its voice to speak out before this tragic downward spiral becomes irreversible," Leila Swan of Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Friday.
The unpopular Maduro has cast the release of dozens of opposition members as a peace gesture following his re-election to a new six-year term last month, which was condemned by most Western nations as an undemocratic farce. His government denies the detainees are political prisoners.
Venezuela is suffering from an economic collapse that includes chronic shortages of food and medicine and annualised inflation around 25,000 percent. Maduro blames an "economic war" directed by the opposition and the United States -- which has imposed new sanctions on Venezuela's oil industry.
Under previous attorney-general Luisa Ortega Diaz, who fled Venezuela last year, 357 security officers were believed to be under investigation for crime-related killings, but there has been no public information since then, the report said.
(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Catherine Evans)