United Nations envoy Kofi Annan arrived in Syria today for talks with President Bashar al-Assad after three days of attacks left more than 100 dead, including dozens of children, and drew growing international condemnation.
Annan said he was “shocked and horrified” by the massacre of more than 100 people in the town of Houla, and that “those responsible for these brutal crimes must be held accountable,” according to an e-mailed statement from his office. The diplomat is due to meet senior government officials as well as representatives of the opposition and civil society.
At least 34 people, including eight children, were killed in army shelling of Hama that started yesterday, the opposition Syrian National Council said on Facebook today. The attack followed the May 25 massacre in Houla, condemned by the UN Security Council, in which 32 children were among the dead.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry said in a letter to the UN Security Council that militants were responsible for the Houla killings, the state news agency SANA reported. In a battle with the militants, three Syrian soldiers were killed and 16 wounded as the army fought to protect civilians, SANA said.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters in Damascus yesterday that gunmen funded by foreign powers were responsible for the killings. Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council, called on Syrians to intensify their revolt and unite against Assad, saying they had “nothing to lose,” and accused world powers of failing to shoulder their responsibilities.
The killings add to evidence that the cease-fire agreement brokered by Annan last month has failed to deter Assad’s efforts to crush an uprising that began with peaceful protests and has evolved into an armed insurgency shaking the stability of the region. Assad’s forces have killed more than 10,000 people since March 2011 when the protests began, according to the UN.
Annan urged the Syrian government to “take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully.” He said his message applied to “everyone with a gun” involved in the conflict.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande spoke today and “agreed to act together to increase the pressure of the international community on Assad and to bring an end to the bloody suppression of the Syrian people who aspire to freedom and democracy,” Cameron’s office said in an e-mailed statement.
Cameron also suggested the UN Security Council should consider sending more observers to Syria to boost the chances of success for Annan’s plan. The prime minister made the suggestion in a phone call to UN General Ban Ki-moon today, according to an e-mailed statement.
Violence has spread into Lebanon this month, with gun battles between Assad supporters and opponents. Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services today cut the outlook on Lebanon’s credit rating to negative from stable, saying the spread of the conflict from Syria is “threatening government stability” in the neighboring state.
The Security Council yesterday condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the killings in Houla, in the central province of Homs, without holding Assad’s troops responsible because of Russian objections. Alexander Pankin, Russia’s deputy envoy at the UN, said circumstances surrounding the deaths remain murky and it was “difficult to imagine” the Syrian government would massacre women and children.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said both sides of the conflict are behind the Houla massacre, and urged the international community today to put concerted pressure on Assad and armed opposition groups to halt the violence. Some countries are encouraging the Syrian opposition to undermine the UN peace plan, and that “isn’t a fair game,” he told reporters in Moscow today.
Western and Arab powers accused Assad’s army of carrying out atrocities, including killing children, an allegation denied by his government.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said yesterday that President Barack Obama “can no longer ignore calls from congressional leaders in both parties to take more assertive steps,” including arming Syrian opposition groups.
An editorial in China’s state-run Global Times newspaper today said it was too early to say who was responsible, and that the West must not use the massacre as an excuse to push for Assad’s ouster. Russia and China “must firmly oppose the hysterical escalation of interventionism,” the English-language editorial said.
At a regular briefing today, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Beijing was demanding a full investigation into the killings and wants all sides to adhere to Annan’s plan.
The UN now has 271 unarmed military observers to monitor the Syria cease-fire plan, and expects to have a full contingent of 300 there by the end of this month. The 90-day mission will be reviewed in July.
The chief of the UN’s observers in Syria, General Robert Mood, told the Security Council at an emergency meeting yesterday that at least 116 people were killed in Houla, more than the 90 reported earlier, according to two diplomats who were at the meeting. Herve Ladsous, under secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, put the figure at 108.
“The observers were not able to immediately determine the cause of death, but observed shotgun wounds and wounds consistent with artillery fire,” Ki-moon wrote in a letter yesterday to the Security Council. “The villages in question were outside of the government control but surrounded by heavy military presence.”
Local residents interviewed by observers visiting the site said that the armed men who entered the village were members of a pro-Assad militia group, known as “Shabiha,” Ban said in the letter. The observers said there was evidence of shootings at close range and “severe physical abuse,” according to Ban.
The events in Houla may speed the supply of weapons to rebels battling Assad’s forces, said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, in a phone interview.
“Those who oppose the Syrian regime are sending money and arms flowing to the Syrian Free Army,” he said. “Will this process now be sped up because of the event of Houla? I think the answer is yes.”