An international panel of historians declared today that Switzerland was guilty of acting as an accomplice in the Holocaust when it refused to accept many thousands of fleeing Jews, and instead sent them back to almost certain annihilation at the hands of the Nazis.

In a hard-hitting report commissioned three years ago by the Swiss government to reevaluate the nation's wartime role, the nine-member panel said it had unearthed records proving that Switzerland "declined to help people in mortal danger" when it rejected at least 24,500 Jews between January 1940 and the end of World War II in 1945.

Describing their findings as "a lesson for all humanity," the historians condemned the practices of the Swiss government, accusing wartime officials of pursuing an inhumane policy sharply at odds with the country's tradition of offering asylum to those facing persecution.

The massive, 956-page study follows the release Monday of a report on the results of a separate independent investigation into the practices of Swiss banks. That probe was conducted by an international panel headed by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. The group uncovered nearly 54,000 dormant accounts linked to Holocaust victims--a number far greater than the banks had ever acknowledged.

The release of the two reports seems bound to trigger renewed controversy because they challenge some of Switzerland's most cherished national myths. The Swiss have long believed their oasis of neutrality was preserved by a plucky militia that kept Hitler's forces at bay and that they bravely resisted any dealings with fascist powers even though their Alpine redoubt was surrounded by Axis armies.

Both reports, however, produced overwhelming evidence that Switzerland collaborated widely in financial and other matters with the Nazi regime--even to the point of urging Germany to mark Jewish passports with a "J" to make it easier to prevent Jews from entering the country.

"For persecuted people, the journey to the Swiss border was already fraught with great danger," said the panel of historians, headed by Swiss professor Jean-Francois Bergier. "By creating additional barriers for them to overcome, Swiss officials helped the Nazi regime achieve its goals, whether intentionally or not."

Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss, whose father helped provide a safe haven for fellow Jews, said the findings filled her with "immense sadness." Reading an apology endorsed by the entire cabinet, Dreifuss acknowledged that her country did not live up to its humanitarian tradition by consigning so many refugees to their deaths.

"Nothing can make good the consequences of decisions taken at the time, and we pay our respects before the pain of those who were denied access to our territory and were abandoned to unspeakable suffering, deportation and death," the cabinet statement said. "Switzerland's asylum policy at the time was marred by errors, omissions and compromises."

But the government complained that the panel did not place enough importance on "undeniable historical realities," such as Swiss fears about a possible Nazi invasion and the need to maintain foreign trade to ensure the nation's survival, as reasons behind the lapse in moral judgment.

Bergier and other members of the panel said they recognized public fears of food shortages and an invasion, but they concluded there was no indication "that opening the border [to refugees] might have provoked an invasion by the Axis or caused insurmountable economic difficulties."

The panel acknowledged that Switzerland did admit 51,000 refugees during the war, including about 20,000 Jews. The historians also found that trains carrying Jewish deportees from France and Italy did not transit Switzerland. And they praised some Swiss citizens for bucking antisemitic sentiments embedded in their culture and speaking out on behalf of saving the refugees.

Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Israeli branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, applauded Switzerland's initiative in "finally confronting its history."