Syria violence rages on

2012-05-27 22:36

New York - The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on Sunday on the situation in Syria, hearing that the toll from a massacre in the town of Houla had risen to 116 dead and 300 injured.

The new toll, revealed via video-link by the head of the UN monitoring team in Syria, Major General Robert Mood, came as Russia put off moves for a statement blaming President Bashar al-Assad's regime for the killings.

The Houla killings on Friday and Saturday sparked international outrage and condemnation, but Russia's deputy ambassador to the UN on Sunday cast doubt on the guilt of Syria's government over the massacre.

"We need to establish whether it was the Syrian authorities," Igor Pankin told reporters at the United Nations, closing ranks with a key Middle Eastern ally as Damascus continued to deny its forces were responsible.

"There are substantial grounds to believe that the majority of those who were killed were either slashed, cut by knives, or executed at point blank distance."

Mood, a Norwegian, briefed the Security Council as UN and Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan was expected to fly to Damascus on Monday to try to rescue his six-point peace plan amid a crumbling ineffective truce.

The regime was "not at all" to blame for the massacre in Houla in central Homs province, Syrian foreign ministry spokesperson Jihad al-Makdissi insisted.

Britain and France had proposed a statement condemning the massacre, but diplomats said Russia would not agree to the condemnation until a briefing by Mood.

Mood said the deaths were from "shrapnel" and gunfire at "point-blank" range, diplomats at the closed-door meeting at the United Nations in New York said.

'Terrorists'

The incident was one of the bloodiest episodes since Assad's regime launched a brutal crackdown on opponents in March last year that has left thousands dead.

"The investigation indicates that first there was the artillery barrage and then militia fighters moved into Houla," a UN source told AFP.

Blaming "terrorists" for the killings on Friday and Saturday, Makdissi said Damascus had opened an investigation, with results expected within three days.

"Not one Syrian tank went in," he said.

Makdissi said Annan was expected in Damascus on Monday, although there was no confirmation from the former UN chief's spokesperson.

Exiled opposition head Burhan Ghalioun on Sunday called for a "battle of liberation" against the regime until the United Nations takes action under Chapter VII allowing military intervention.

"I call on the Syrian people to lead a battle of liberation and dignity, relying on its own forces," he told a news conference in Istanbul.

And the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) warned that unless the international community took concrete action it would no longer be bound by Annan's UN-backed peace plan and his April 12 ceasefire which has been violated daily.

Civil war

Mood warned on Saturday of "civil war" after his observers visited Houla.

He also called on the Syrian government to "cease the use of heavy weapons, and on all parties to cease violence in all its forms".

While the monitors could not immediately attribute responsibility for the killings, there was evidence of the use of heavy artillery and tank shells, Mood said on Saturday.

"Those using violence for their own agendas will create more instability, more unpredictability and may lead the country to civil war," he warned.

Amid mounting calls for world action to halt the bloodshed, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined the chorus of international condemnation of the carnage.

"This appalling and brutal crime, involving indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force, is a flagrant violation of international law," a UN spokesperson quoted Ban and Annan as saying.

Condemnation also poured in from the United States, Britain, France and Germany, with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius saying he was making "immediate arrangements" for a meeting of the Friends of Syria group that backs the opposition.

Arab League foreign ministers are also to hold an emergency meeting, the bloc's current president Kuwait said.

Violence rages on

Despite the outcry, violence raged on, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reported at least 28 people killed across the country on Sunday, among them women and children.

Protests against the Houla killings were held nationwide, including in the capital Damascus where one demonstrator was shot dead by security forces, the Observatory said.

Angry residents voiced outrage over the killings as a UN team visited Houla on Saturday.

"Some of the children were less than eight months old.

"What did they do? Did they also carry rocket-propelled grenades?" one man shouted at a visibly embarrassed UN military observer.

Read more on:    un  |  bashar al-assad  |  syria  |  syria conflict  |  uprisings
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