Facing growing world outrage over the killing of at least 109 people in a restive Syrian town, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime on Sunday accused the opposition of carrying out the massacre, in which dozens of children perished.
Images of bloodied and lifeless young bodies, laid carefully side by side after the killings in Houla on Friday, triggered shock around the globe and underlined the failure of a six-week-old UN cease-fire plan to stop the violence. Syrian authorities blamed “terrorists” for the massacre, among the worst carnage in the 14-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which has cost about 10,000 lives.
“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.
Opposition activists said Assad’s forces shelled the town of Houla after a protest and then skirmishes between troops and fighters from the Sunni Muslim-led insurgency.
Activists say Assad’s ‘shabbiha’ militia, loyal to an establishment dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect, then hacked dozens of the victims to death, or shot them at close range. UN military and civilian observers counted 32 children under 10 among at least 92 dead on Saturday. More bodies have since been found, activists said. The observers confirmed the use of artillery, which only Assad’s forces have, but did not say how all the victims died.
Kuwait, which currently heads the 22-member Cairo-based Arab League, announced it is calling for an Arab ministerial meeting that aims to “take steps to put an end to the oppressive practices against the Syrian people.”
An unnamed Foreign Ministry official was quoted by Kuwait’s official news agency, KUNA, as condemning the attack in Houla and blamed regime forces for the “ugly crime.” The official said Kuwait is making contacts so that the international community can “assume its responsibilities to stop the blood shedding of Syrian brothers.”
Western countries and Arab states opposed to Assad put the blame squarely on Damascus.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of Sunni-led monarchies accused Assad’s soldiers of using excessive force and urged the international community to “assume its responsibilities to halt the daily bloodshed in Syria.”
EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton spoke of a “heinous act perpetrated by the Syrian regime against its own civilian population” in a statement on Sunday. The head of the European parliament said it could amount to a war crime.
‘Rule by murder’
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded that those who carried out the killings be held to account. “The United States will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on Assad and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end,” she said.
France said it would call a meeting of the Friends of Syria, a group of Western and Arab countries keen to see Assad removed.
Britain said it would summon Syria’s envoy over the massacre and that it would call for a meeting of the UN Security Council in coming days.
The United Arab Emirates requested an urgent meeting of the Arab League, whose head, Nabil Elaraby, urged the US Security Council to stop the killing.
But there was no immediate official word from Russia, which along with China has vetoed Council resolutions calling for tougher action.
Although the cease-fire plan negotiated by former UN secretary-general Kofi 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 the government and opposition. Syria calls the revolt a “terrorist” conspiracy run from abroad, a veiled reference to Sunni Muslim Gulf powers that want to see weapons provided to the insurgents.
The United Nations has accused Assad’s forces and insurgents alike of grave human rights abuses, including summary executions and torture.
Russian arms shipment to Syria
A Russian cargo ship loaded with weapons was en route to Syria and due to arrive at a Syrian port over the weekend, Al Arabiya television said in a report that Western diplomats in New York described as credible.
Syria is one of Russia’s top weapons customers. The United States and European Union have suggested the UN Security Council should impose an arms embargo and other UN sanctions on Syria for its 14-month assault on a pro-democracy opposition determined to oust Assad.
But Russia, with the support of fellow veto power China, has prevented the council from imposing any UN sanctions on Syria and has refused to halt arms sales to Damascus.
“Al Arabiya have learned that a Russian cargo ship carrying a large amount of weapons plans to unload its cargo in the Syrian port of Tartus,” the broadcaster said on its website.
The report said the ship left a Russian port on May 6 and cited a “Western source” as saying that it was due to dock at Tartus on Saturday. “The ship is trying to conceal its final destination in a suspicious way,” Al Arabiya said. Western diplomats and officials said the report was credible.
In a letter to the UN Security Council, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had seen reports of countries supplying arms to the government and the opposition. He urged states not to arm either side in the Syrian conflict. “Those who may contemplate supporting any side with weapons, military training or other military assistance, must reconsider such options to enable a sustained cessation of violence,” he said.
Russia has defended its weapons deliveries to Syria in the face of Western criticism, saying government forces need to defend themselves against the opposition receiving arms from abroad. Damascus says Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Libya are among the countries helping the opposition forces.