UNITED NATIONS - The General Assembly called yesterday for a moratorium on the death penalty with a view to abolishing executions, approving a resolution opposed by the United States, China and Iran.

The vote in the 192-member world body was 104-54 with 29 abstentions. The resolution is not legally binding but carries moral weight and reflects the majority view of world opinion.

Two previous attempts to have the assembly adopt a moratorium on the death penalty failed, in 1994 and 1999.

Amnesty International, which campaigned for a resolution, said that since then, the number of countries that have abolished the death penalty in law or practice has risen.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the resolution "a bold step by the international community."

"I am particularly encouraged by the support expressed for this initiative from many diverse regions of the world," he said. "This is further evidence of a trend toward ultimately abolishing the death penalty."

The Vatican, a leading opponent of capital punishment, also welcomed the vote.

The vote capped a heated debate in the General Assembly's human-rights committee.

The resolution was cosponsored by European Union states and 60 other countries, and spearheaded by Italy, whose foreign minister, Massimo D'Alema, hailed its adoption as "an important step" to end capital punishment.

According to Hands Off Cain, a Rome-based group opposed to the death penalty, more people were put to death last year - 5,628 - than in either of the previous two years, with China alone accounting for 5,000 executions. Iran ranked second, with at least 215 people put to death; 53 people were executed in the United States.

The United States took the unusual step of siding with countries such as Iran, China and Syria in opposing the resolution - and against its usual European allies and Israel.

Supporters of the death penalty stressed that the resolution would not interfere with their laws and practices, and several accused the United Nations of trying to interfere with their sovereignty.