Syria blames rebels for Houla massacre of over 100

UN observer in Damascus laments violence but refrains from pointing fingers; Netanyahu is ‘revolted’ by violence; Security Council convenes.

UN observer at scene of Houla massacre 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
UN observer at scene of Houla massacre 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Opposition activists in Syria on Sunday criticized UN observers for failing to take action to prevent the massacre of at least 109 people in the town of Houla.
They also slammed the UN mission for not condemning President Bashar Assad’s forces for the killings on Friday. Syrian authorities have denied responsibility, blaming “terrorists” for the slaughter.
Late on Sunday night, at least 30 more people were killed when Syrian army tanks shelled neighborhoods in Hama that have been serving as a base for rebel attacks against loyalist forces, opposition activists said.
The reports could not be independently verified.
In a rare comment on the turmoil, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed “revulsion over the ongoing massacre being perpetrated by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad against innocent civilians.
“Iran and Hezbollah are an inseparable part of the Syrian atrocities and the world needs to act against them,” Netanyahu said.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak called on Sunday for international intervention in Syria, saying the massacre in Houla proved why Israel needed a strong military to protect it.
“The massacre perpetrated by the Assad regime in Houla and the murder of children, women and elderly over the past year obligates the world to intervene,” Barak said. “The barbaric crimes that Assad’s regime commits and the support it enjoys from Iran and Hezbollah, obligate the world to act to stop it.”
The Revolutionary Council of nearby Homs said, “The observers’ delegation remained helpless and did not take an initiative to intervene, except to count the victims the day after the massacre, just as the UN did in Sarajevo and Srebrenica in Bosnia.”
Images of lifeless young bodies, lain side by side after the massacre, triggered shock around the world and underlined the failure of a six-week-old UN ceasefire plan to stop the violence in Syria.
UN military and civilian observers counted 32 children under 10 years of age among the dead in Houla.
Gen. Robert Mood, head of the unarmed UN observers force, called the killings “a very tragical expression” of the situation in Syria but refrained from apportioning blame.
Maysara al-Hilawi said he was one of the first activists belonging to the Houla Coordination Committee who rushed to the area on Friday shortly after members of a pro-Assad militia, drawn from the Alawite offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, fled the Sunni area.
“I helped collect over 100 bodies in the last two days, mostly women and children. The last ones were six members of the al-Kurdi family. A father and his five kids. The mother is missing,” he said by telephone from the area. He said he had feared a “massacre was about to be committed,” but UN observers whom he pleaded with to rush to the area had “arrived too late.”
Click for full JPost coverageClick for full JPost coverage
Opposition activists in Homs said the violence began when Syrian troops and militiamen, stationed at roadblocks that surround Houla, fired heavy machine guns at a demonstration, killing five people.
Free Syrian Army rebels responded by ransacking two army roadblocks, the activists said.
Houla then came under an intense artillery barrage that killed around 15 villagers. Residents say members of Assad’s “shabbiha” militia then entered Houla from nearby villages, hacking men, women and children with knives and shooting them at close range.
The opposition activists said around 400 families had fled the region in the 48 hours since the massacre.
The Gulf Cooperation Council 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,” speaking in a statement on Sunday. The head of the European Parliament said it could amount to a war crime.
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 UN 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 secretarygeneral 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 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.
The Security Council met on Sunday to discuss the massacre in Houla, which the United Nations has blamed on the Syrian government but Damascus and Moscow suggested was due to a rebel attack.
Russian Deputy UN Ambassador Alexander Pankin told reporters Moscow was skeptical about suggestions that the government was behind the massacre, saying it appeared most of the victims were killed with knives or shot at point-blank range.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant disagreed.
“It seems quite clear that the massacre in Houla was caused by heavy bombardment, by government artillery and tanks,” Lyall Grant said ahead of the meeting.
Diplomats said they hoped to agree on some kind of condemnation of the massacre, though Russia was clearly at odds with the Western powers regarding who was to blame.
The emergency council meeting was called after Russia rejected a French and British proposal for a statement condemning the massacre, diplomats said on condition of anonymity.
Moscow, which remains a staunch ally of Assad, told other members of the 15-nation Council that it wanted a briefing from Mood before agreeing on a statement, envoys said.