UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said unarmed UN monitors came under fire Thursday as they tried to reach the scene of the latest Syrian mass killing. Opposition claims government forces killed nearly 80 people, including women and children who were shot, hacked to death and burned in their homes.
|A boy holds a toy gun in Homs. Reuters|
The Houla killings brought international outrage and a coordinated expulsion of Syrian diplomats from world capitals.
Ban told the UN General Assembly that the monitors "were shot at with small arms" as they tried to reach Mazraat al-Qubair, a farming area in the central Hama province. The group initially was denied access. He did not mention any casualties and it was not clear who was behind the shooting.
International envoy Kofi Annan had a grim assessment of the coming days and weeks in Syria.
"If things do not change, the future is likely to be one of brutal repression, massacres, sectarian violence, and even all-out civil war," Annan told the General Assembly. "All Syrians will lose."
Syria denied that its forces committed a massacre as "absolutely baseless" and blamed the violence on terrorists who are trying to provoke foreign military intervention to topple Assad.
One resident of Mazraat al-Qubair said troops shelled the area for five hours Wednesday before government-aligned militiamen known as shabiha entered the area, "killing and hacking everyone they could find."
Leith Al-Hamwy told The Associated Press by telephone that he survived by hiding in an olive grove about 800 meters from the farms as the killings were taking place. But he said his mother and six siblings, the youngest 10-year-old twins, did not.
"When I came out of hiding and went inside the houses, I saw bodies everywhere. Entire families either shot or killed with sharp sticks and knives," he said.
Al-Hamwy said the gunmen set his family home on fire and his family burned to death. Around 80 people in total died, he said, many of them children, and 18 homes were either destroyed by the shelling or burned down.
Syria's main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, also said 78 people were killed in Mazraat al-Qubair when government-aligned militiamen converged on the village from neighboring pro-regime villages. Some of the dead were killed execution-style, others were slain with knives, the SNC said. It said 35 of the dead were from the same family and more than half of them were women and children.
Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the observers mission in Syria, said UN patrols headed to the village were stopped at Syrian army checkpoints and in some cases turned back. He said some patrols were also stopped by civilians and added they had received information from residents of the area that the safety of observers was at risk if they entered the village.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the Syrian government.
"The regime-sponsored violence that we witnessed again in Hama yesterday is simply unconscionable," she said in Turkey. "Assad has doubled down on his brutality and duplicity, and Syria will not, cannot be peaceful, stable or certainly democratic until Assad goes."
The exact death toll and circumstances of the killings overnight in Mazraat al-Qubair were impossible to confirm. The violence is bound to reinforce the growing belief that a peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan is unraveling as the country spirals toward civil war.
Both Homs and Hama have been centers of opposition to Assad's rule during the 15-month revolt.
The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said it had compiled the names of at least 49 people who had died in the massacre. But Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the group which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said the circumstances of the killings were still unclear and called on UN observers to visit the area immediately.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, gave a higher death toll, saying more than 78 people were killed, including many women and children.
A government statement published on the state-run news agency SANA said "an armed terrorist group committed an appalling crime" in Mazraat al-Qubair, killing nine women and children. It said that after the crime, residents there appealed to Syrian authorities in Hama to intervene to protect them, adding that authorities went to the farm and stormed a hideout of the group and clashed with them.
The statement claimed all members of the armed group were killed in clashes along with two security agents and five security agents were wounded.
Amateur video posted on the Internet purported to show the bodies of babies, children and two women wrapped in blankets and lined with frozen bottles of water to slow their corpses from rotting in a large room with brightly patterned red carpet.
In another video, the camera pans over to four blackened, charred objects too disfigured to be identified as human bodies. The narrator said they were of a mother and two children who were shelled in their home. The authenticity of the videos could not be independently verified.
Al-Qubair is a small farm in the overwhelmingly Sunni village of Maarzaf around 12 miles west of the city of Hama with around 30 homes and around 160 inhabitants. Activists said the Sunni village is surrounded by a string of Alawite villages. Alawites are an offshoot of Shi'a Islam and Assad is a member of the sect, while the opposition is dominated by Sunnis.
Attempts to reach more eyewitnesses and residents of the area were difficult, making the verification of what went on extremely difficult. The Syrian government keeps tight restrictions on journalists.
The statement claimed the killings were meant to put pressure on the Syrian regime ahead of a UN Security Council meeting.
British Prime Minister David Cameron urged concerted action from the international community against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime following the latest reports. He said that if the reports of the "brutal and sickening attack" are true, it adds further proof that the Assad regime is "completely illegitimate and cannot stand."
In Paris, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said ministers from the so-called "Friends of Syria" countries — many European and Arab nations — would meet in the French capital on July 6 to help support the Annan plan. He said the meeting would mobilize "all states and organizations that want to support the Syrian people" amid the repression.
UN Human Rights Council has called for “a special inquiry” into the massacre
In a recent resolution, the UN Human Rights Council has called for “a special inquiry” into the massacre and emphasized the continued failure of the Syrian authorities to protect and promote the rights of all Syrians.
Russia voted against the resolution and on Sunday the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that its text is unbalanced as the responsibility over violence in the country is only put on the Syrian government, without mentioning armed opposition forces.
Moscow demands that no conclusions be made about who is responsible for the violence until the UN Supervision Mission in Syria finishes its investigation into the Houla killings.
Russia also says the UN Human Rights Council has exceeded its mandate as its resolution contradicts the statement made by the Security Council.
Following the last week’s shelling of Houla, many Western countries expelled Syrian diplomats and further international isolation of Assad’s government.
Assad blames Syria crisis on "outside forces" and describes Houla massacre killers as "monsters"
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad said on Sunday authorities would maintain a crackdown against the armed opposition but were still ready for dialogue with political opponents.
"We will continue firmly confronting terrorism, leaving the door open for those who want to return," Assad told parliament. "I urge all those who are still hesitant to do so, to take this step. The state will not take revenge."
He said that his government faces a foreign plot to destroy Syria, and described the killers in the Houla Massacre as "monsters", in a rare televised speech delivered in parliament.
Assad's accusations came as Arab leaders, mostly members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) called on the United Nations to act to stop bloodshed in Syria and France raised the prospect of military action against Damascus under a UN mandate.
"The masks have fallen and the international role in the Syrian events is now obvious," Assad said in his first address to the assembly that its members was elected on May 7 parliamentary election, adding the polls were the perfect response "to the criminal killers and those who finance them."
The Syrian leader was greeted with warm applause from lawmakers.
"What happened in Houla and elsewhere (in Syria) are brutal massacres which even monsters would not have carried out," he said.
Assad pointed out that the Syrian people are shocked at the level of brutality and violence that their country is witnessing.
Assad paid tribute to civilian and military "martyrs" of the violence in Syria, saying their blood was not shed in vain.
"We are not facing a political problem but a project designed to destroy the country," Assad said, adding there will be "no dialogue" with opposition groups which "seek foreign intervention."
"Syria is open to all Syrians regardless of their views, but terrorism cannot be part of the political process and we must fight against terrorism to heal the nation," Assad said.
"A battle was forced on us, and the result was this bloodshed that we are seeing," Assad told the parliament.
Syria on the offensive, deports western and Turkish diplomats
On Tuesday and following Assad’s speech, Syria's government declared that the ambassadors and staff of several Western countries as well as Turkey were personae non gratae.
"Some states recently informed heads of our diplomatic missions and embassy staff that they are unwelcome," the foreign ministry said in a statement, adding Syria was now designating the ambassadors of the United States, Britain, France and Turkey, among others, as personae non gratae.
The ambassadors of Canada, Italy and Spain were also named in the statement, as well as various embassy staff members from Belgium, Bulgaria and Germany.
The statement concluded by saying that Syria "still believes in the importance of dialogue based on principles of equality and mutual respect" and that diplomacy is a "necessary tool" for countries to resolve disputes.
"We hope that those countries which initiated this step will adopt the same principles, allowing for relations to be normalized," it added.
Putin is firm against intervention in Syria
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin stood firm against growing pressure over Moscow's position on Syria, opposing foreign military intervention and raising doubts about the effectiveness of sanctions.
Washington and Moscow agreed on the need to work together on Syria, a U.S. official said following a phone conversation between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"Her message to him was: 'We've got to start working together to help the Syrians with Syria's political transition strategy. And I want our people to work together on ideas in Moscow, Europe, in Washington, wherever we need to'."
Arab League calls on Annan to put a time limit on his mission
At a ministerial meeting in the Qatari capital Doha, international peace envoy Kofi Annan warned: "The specter of an all-out war with a worrying sectarian dimension grows by the day."
"The situation is complex and it takes everyone involved in the conflict to act responsibly if the violence is to stop. But the first responsibility lies in the Syrian government and President Assad," he said.
Earlier, the Arab League's ministerial committee on Syria had called on Annan, who met Assad earlier this week, to set a deadline for the terms of his peace initiative to be met.
"We demand the UN Security Council refer the six-point (Annan plan) to Chapter VII so that the international community could assume responsibilities," he added.
Chapter VII outlines action the Security Council might take, including military force, in response to threats to international peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression.
Tensions from Syria have also spilled across into neighboring Lebanon, where clashes between pro- and anti-Damascus gunmen left 14 dead and 48 wounded over the weekend in the northern city of Tripoli, security officials said.
Because of the worsening violence and Assad's failure to meet commitments under an agreed peace plan, the United States has warned that it may not agree to renew the UN observer mission when its mandate expires on July 20.
Annan: 'Third party acting in Syria'
Some attacks in Syria clearly speak of a "third actor's'" presence, said UN-Arab League special envoy Annan taking over from Ban.
"We cannot allow mass killing to be part of daily life in Syria," he said.
Annan is concerned the Arab country, which plunged into a civil conflict over a year ago, is growing more polarized and radicalized every day. Although Assad cites a militant threat, the envoy is convinced the government bears prime responsibility for the country's security.
The envoy was forced to admit that both sides to the Syrian internal conflict are not fully abiding to his peace plan, considered to be in effect since April, even despite the deployment of UN monitors.
But, echoing Ban, Annan also called for a joint international action.
"We must act as one. Individual actions or interventions will not resolve the crisis," he concluded.
Syria’s envoy to the UN lashed out at the Arab League for accusing Assad’s government of being behind the Houla massacre before the investigation was over. He also declared that Syria is ready to receive an inquiry commission made up of states “known for their refusal to interfere in Syrian internal affairs.”
The envoy laid blame for recent killings on the Salafi movement, al-Qaeda and other extremist and terror organizations. He also said the violence in his home country is a result of foreign efforts.
“Some countries contribute to Syria's escalating violence by propaganda and by assisting illegal military groups,” the envoy told the assembly.
He also took note of the role Iran could play in resolving the crisis.
“Iran will be important part of the solution," he said.
He condemned calls for any further militarization and underscored the need to closely follow his peace plan, as well as the UN Security Council resolutions and guidelines.
“Syria is not Libya. It will not implode. It will explode.”
Russia, too, warned against arming and financing Syria’s opposition, as would facilitate a “terror environment abused by a third force.” Condemning the massacres in Houla and Hama, Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin called on the Assembly not to be caught up in the “provocations aimed at disrupting Annan’s plan.”
“Winding up the confrontational spring is unacceptable,” Churkin said, urging for an international conference on the Syrian crisis, which would involve powers with real leverage on the Syrian regime and multiple opposition groups. According to Russian diplomats, this plan has already been approved by China, France and Iran.
Lavrov: ‘No UNSC mandate for foreign intervention into Syria’
Moscow hopes all the parties that can influence the Syrian crisis will take part in a proposed conference, says Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov following the UN session, from Kazakhstan.
“The conference should come under the UN umbrella,” said Lavrov, adding the global discussion would not be a one-time event.
“The first stage would exclude any Syrian representatives,” he continued. “Its purpose would be to agree on the leverage to be used on each and every Syrian group: be it the government or various opposition forces – to stop the violence and start a dialogue.”
The FM listed Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, the League of Arab States, the EU and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation among the “integral parts” to the process.
Much depends on the Syrian opposition, and more particularly, on the National Syrian Council, based in Istanbul, pointed out the minister. The group harshly opposes any dialogue with the Assad government, and is promoting armed resistance until the UN Security Council mandates a foreign military intervention into Syria.
“There’ll be no mandate by the UN Security Council for a foreign intervention, I guarantee you that,” Lavrov told journalists.
Russia: Syrians must decide Assad's fate
Russia would accept a Yemen-style power transition in Syria if it were decided by the people, Russia's deputy foreign minister said on Thursday, deflecting Western calls for President Bashar Assad to yield power.
The United States is seeking Russia's support in getting Assad to step aside, but Mikhail Bogdanov said the president's fate was "not a question for us" but for the Syrian people.
"Application of the so-called Yemen scenario to resolve the conflict in Syria is possible only if the Syrians themselves agree to it," Bogdanov said, according to the Interfax news agency.
"The Yemen scenario was discussed by the Yemenis themselves. If this scenario is discussed by Syrians themselves and is adopted by them, we are not against it."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Western and Arab nations meeting in Istanbul on Wednesday that a transition strategy in Syria must include Assad's full transfer of power, a senior State Department official said.
Clinton is sending Fred Hof, a senior State Department official who works on Syria, to Moscow. Hof will meet Russian Foreign Ministry officials on Friday, ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.
The senior U.S. official suggested Clinton was trying to lay down minimum benchmarks for how a Syrian transition could unfold with the hope that Russia might back it.
Lukashevich told a weekly briefing Russia was "conducting very active dialogue with the (U.S.) administration" on Syria and said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in "constant contact not only with ... Annan but also with Hillary Clinton."
"This is a normal process in terms of searching for optimal variants for strengthening the international coalition in support of Kofi Annan's plan," Lukashevich said. The central plank of Annan's plan was a ceasefire that never took hold.
Lukashevich avoided a direct answer when asked whether Russia had offered Assad asylum.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials have maintained that Moscow is not out to protect Assad and is open to his exit from power if this arises from a Syrian political dialogue without foreign interference.
Bogdanov said Assad's fate was not Russia's to decide. "This is not a question for us, it is a question for the Syrian political forces and society," he said.
In a statement during a visit to Beijing by Putin, a regional security alliance led by Russia and China said it opposes military interference, forced power handovers and unilateral sanctions in dealings with Middle East states.
Obama resists pressure; Is Annan seeking a deal?
The Obama administration continues to resist calls for more involvement in Syria, including one from Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, who said that a naval blockade by NATO is the least that could be done to stop support to Assad from Russia and Iran.
According to the well-connected Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Annan hopes to gain the U.N. Security Council's approval for the creation of a "contact group" composed of the Council's five permanent members, a representative of the Arab League, Turkey, and Iran to draft a detailed transition plan that, among other things, would provide Assad with safe exile in either Russia or Iran, new presidential and parliamentary elections, and reform of the country's security forces.
Involving both Russia and Iran - both of which have, to a limited extent, distanced themselves from Assad, particularly in light of the latest reports of regime-backed mayhem - in this process could reassure them that their interests will be protected in a post-Assad regime.
The Obama administration is expected to support the proposal, at least as it regards Russia, which has long been seen by Washington as the key to diplomatic efforts to persuade Assad to step down.
Comments by Clinton on Thursday indicated that Iran's involvement may be seen as problematic, however, because of their support for Assad.
— TAAN, RT, Al-Akhbar, Reuters