More than 5,000 displaced Syrians, mostly women and children without food or water, have been found by a joint Red Cross-Red Crescent team close to the site of the weekend massacre in Houla.
“Being freshly displaced from their homes, the people had almost nothing to sustain themselves” when found in the village of Burj al-Qa’i, Sean Maguire, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in an e-mailed statement today. “People were worried, uncertain of their future and felt unsafe.”
The ICRC and the Syrian Red Crescent workers left food, water, mattresses and some medical supplies before leaving the refugees yesterday “in schools, or with local families, or wherever they can find shelter.”
The news came as Japan and Turkey today joined allies around the world in expelling Syrian diplomats and expressing revulsion at events in Houla.
While Assad and opposition forces last month agreed to the peace plan proposed by United Nations envoy Kofi Annan and the deployment of 300 UN cease-fire monitors, violence in the 14 month-old conflict has continued. Russia and China, long-standing allies of Assad’s, today said they continued to oppose military intervention.
According to UN estimates, the killings in Houla, western Syria, left 108 people dead including 49 children. Most of the victims died in their homes and entire families were killed together, shot at close range, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said yesterday, citing witnesses and survivors. The UN said it was an “appalling massacre.”
The announcements by Turkey and Japan followed similar decisions yesterday by the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Australia, Canada, Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland to employ one of the strongest symbolic measures remaining in the diplomatic armory.
“Japan resolutely condemns such inhumane violence,” Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba told a news conference, referring to last week’s massacre. It’s clear the Assad government bears “the main responsibility” for the deaths, Gemba said.
“The foreign community is raising the rhetorical bar once again in order to avoid direct military intervention,” Joshua Landis, a former resident of Damascus who’s director of the Middle East program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, said yesterday.
“We are at a tipping point,” Annan said in Damascus yesterday after meeting Assad. “The killings continue and the abuses are still with us today. As I reminded the President, the international community will soon be reviewing the situation.” Annan said he received no new commitments from Assad.
The massacre, which the U.S. and UN attributed to pro-government shabiha militiamen, was “absolutely indefensible, vile, despicable,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday. The victims were “innocent children, women, shot at point-blank range by regime thugs, the shabiha, aided and abetted by the Iranians, who were actually bragging about it over the weekend,” she said.
The Syrian government blames the deaths on foreign-backed terrorist groups, according to Syria’s state-run SANA news agency.
‘What’s the Point?’
“What’s the point of carrying out investigations if those countries know in advance the identity of the criminal?” the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper said in an editorial today, referring to the diplomatic expulsions. “Following yesterday’s decisions, it has become clearer to Syrians that there’s no value in the Security Council’s resolutions and statements that are meant only for media consumption while countries work behind the scene to destroy Syria.”
Syria has expelled the Dutch charge d’affaires and has given her 72 hours to leave the country, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said on the Twitter social media website. The U.S. suspended embassy operations in Damascus and recalled Ambassador Robert Ford and the rest of its staff in February. Several EU embassies have closed down, including the German and French embassies.
China said today that what it termed the “incident” in Houla should be investigated at once and the perpetrators held accountable.
“The fundamental way out for the Syrian issue is that all parties concerned should support and cooperate with Annan’s mediation efforts and push for the different factions in Syria to solve their crisis through negotiation and consultation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a regular briefing in Beijing today.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said his country will use its veto in the Security Council to block any military intervention in Syria, Interfax reported.
Nuland said the U.S. and its allies are considering a bid for further sanctions against Syria by the Security Council. French President Francois Hollande, speaking on France2 television, said he will try to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree when they meet June 1 in Paris.
The Security Council condemned the killings on May 27. The UN estimates that as many as 10,000 people have died during the violence, which began with peaceful protests and has degenerated into a conflict involving heavy weaponry. U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague told the British Broadcasting Corp. on May 27 that the total may be as many as 15,000.
At least 62 people were killed yesterday, according to the website of the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group. Some 13 corpses, hands tied behind their backs, were found in Deir al-Zour, the Al Arabiya news channel reported, citing local activists.