World powers condemn heinous Syria massacre

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People gather at a mass burial for the victims purportedly killed during an artillery barrage from Syrian forces in Houla in this handout image dated 26 May 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Shaam News Network - Handout)

Published Monday, May 28, 2012

Updated 12:26pm: The UN Security Council on Sunday unanimously condemned the killing of at least 108 people, including many children, in the Syrian town of Houla, a sign of mounting outrage at the massacre that the government and rebels blamed on each other.

Images of bloodied and lifeless young bodies, laid carefully side by side after the onslaught on Friday, triggered shock around the world and underlined the challenge of a six-week-old UN ceasefire plan to stop the violence.

Western and Arab states opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad put the blame for the deaths squarely on the government. But Damascus rejected the charge, with the UN observer mission refusing to link government shelling of the area to the deaths.

"The Security Council condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women, and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of (Houla), near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood," the non-binding statement said.

"Such outrageous use of force against civilian population constitutes a violation of applicable international law and of the commitments of the Syrian Government under United Nations Security Council Resolutions," the statement said.

The United Nations believes that at least 108 people were killed in Houla, UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said.

Both sides to blame: Russia

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that Moscow was deeply alarmed by the massacre, but that it was clear both Assad's government and rebels were to blame.

"We are dealing with a situation in which both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people," Lavrov said at a joint news conference with visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Hague said Russia and Britain agreed Kofi Annan's peace plan was "at the moment the only hope" for resolving Syria's crisis and that Russia had an important role to play.

Lavrov said he and Hague agreed both the government and its foes must be pressured to end violence, and the Russian foreign minister criticized nations he said argued that there could be no solution without Assad's exit from power.

Lavrov's statements reaffirm Russian Deputy UN Ambassador Alexander Pankin's comments on Sunday, when he said the circumstances surrounding the massacre were "murky" and rejected the idea that the evidence clearly showed Damascus was guilty.

The head of the UN observer force, General Robert Mood, briefed the council by video link. Pankin said Mood "did not link directly the (army's) shelling with numbers of deaths."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent the council a letter that appeared to give ammunition to both sides.

He said the observers "viewed the bodies of the dead and confirmed from an examination of ordnance that artillery and tank shells were fired at a residential neighborhood."

But Ban also said UN monitors observed shotgun wounds on some of the bodies, which could indicate close-range attacks by rebels, as Pankin suggested, or could be the result of follow-up attacks by the army after it stopped shelling.

"While the detailed circumstances are unknown, we can confirm that there has been artillery and mortar shelling," Ban said.

"There have also been other forms of violence, including shootings at close range and severe physical abuse."

International mediator Kofi Annan and Ladsous are expected to brief the council on Syria on Wednesday.

China condemns killings

China on Monday condemned the "cruel killings" of civilians, while insisting that Annan's efforts remained the most viable way to end the violence in Syria.

"China feels deeply shocked by the large number of civilian casualties in Houla, and condemns in the strongest terms the cruel killings of ordinary citizens, especially women and children," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a daily news briefing.

"This incident again demonstrates that an immediate cessation of violence in Syria can brook no delay," Liu added.

"We call on all sides concerned in Syria to implement the relevant UN Security Council resolutions and Annan's six-point proposal immediately, comprehensively and thoroughly."

Liu stressed Beijing believed Annan's efforts remained the best hope for stopping the violence.

"Annan's mediation efforts and six-point proposal are a practical avenue and an important route for reducing the tensions in Syria and promoting a political solution there," said Liu when asked whether China believed an alternative approach was needed.

"We also hope that all sides will continue to play a positive role in order to implement Annan's six-point proposal."

West blames Assad

Despite the inconclusive analysis by the UN team, Western governments capitalized on the opportunity to launch a stinging attack against the Assad regime.

British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant did not have any doubts about who was responsible for the events in Houla.

"It seems quite clear that the massacre in Houla was caused by heavy bombardment, by government artillery and tanks," Lyall Grant said.

After the council meeting he said it was time for the council to discuss "next steps" – a code word for sanctions.

"The fact is, it is an atrocity and it was perpetrated by the Syrian government," Lyall Grant said.

Russia, however, rejects the idea of sanctioning its ally and has accused the United States and Europe of pursuing Libya-style regime change in Syria, where Assad has been trying to crush a 14-month-old insurgency that began peacefully but has become increasingly militarized.

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari reiterated his government's denial, saying the massacre was committed by "armed terrorist groups" – the Syrian government's term for the rebels. He also dismissed the "tsunami of lies" of the British, French, and German envoys, who blamed the government for the massacre.

"Women, children, and old men were shot dead. This is not the hallmark of the heroic Syrian army," Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdesi told reporters in Damascus.

The Houla massacre is among the worst carnage in the uprising against Assad, which has cost about 10,000 lives.

In his public comments, Mood has called the killings "a very tragical expression" of the situation in Syria, but refrained from apportioning blame.

"For myself, I have had patrols on the ground all the day yesterday afternoon and today we are gathering facts on the ground and then we will draw our own conclusions," Mood told the BBC in a telephone interview on Sunday.

But Ban and Annan, the UN and Arab League envoy for Syria, accused the Syrian government of using artillery in populated areas.

"This appalling and brutal crime involving indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force is a flagrant violation of international law and of the commitments of the Syrian Government to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers and violence in all its forms," they said in a joint statement on Saturday.

Iran: massacre an attempt to sow chaos

Iran said on Monday that the massacre was carried out in order to spread chaos and instability in Syria and block peace efforts.

"We are certain that foreign interference, terrorist and suspicious measures which have targeted the resilient Syrian people are doomed to fail," the website of the state television network, Press TV, quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast as saying.

"The attack has been carried out in order to create chaos and instability in Syria and its perpetrators are trying to block the way to a peaceful resolution," he said.

Iran's parliament blamed the United States and other Western countries for arming and training what it described as "terrorists", the Iranian state news agency reported on Monday.

Annan to visit Damascus

Annan is planning to visit Damascus soon. Ja'afari suggested Annan could arrive as early as Monday.

Russia's Pankin said that whoever caused the massacre wanted to disrupt Annan's visit. "We don't believe the Syrian government would be interested in spoiling the visit of (Annan) ... by doing something like that."

Opposition activists said Assad's forces shelled Houla after a protest and then clashed with rebel fighters.

Activists say Assad's "shabbiha" militia, loyal to an establishment dominated by members of the minority Alawi sect, then hacked dozens of the victims to death, or shot them.

Maysara al-Hilawi said he saw the bodies of six children and their parents in a ransacked house in the town.

"The Abdelrazzak family house was the first one I entered. The children's corpses were piled on top of each other, either with their throats cut or shot at close range," Hilawi, an opposition activist, told Reuters by telephone, allegedly from the area.

The White House said it was horrified by credible reports of brutal attacks on women and children in Houla.

"These acts serve as a vile testament to an illegitimate regime that responds to peaceful political protest with unspeakable and inhuman brutality," a White House spokesman said.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said in a statement that it could amount to crimes against humanity or other war crimes.

Lebanon's Hezbollah also expressed horror at the massacre in a statement released on Sunday, saying it "strongly condemns the massacre and deplores those who carried it out."

Although the ceasefire plan negotiated by Annan has failed to stop the violence, the United Nations is nearing full deployment of a 300-strong unarmed observer force meant to monitor a truce.

The plan calls for a truce, withdrawal of troops from cities, and dialogue between government and opposition.

Syria calls the revolt a "terrorist" conspiracy run from abroad, a veiled reference to Gulf Arab dictatorships that want to see weapons provided to the insurgents and the crisis turned into a proxy war against regional rival, Iran.

(Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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